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Report names Long Beach No. 1 ‘Beach Bummer’

Published 6/7/2007 on Daily 49er

Long Beach's seven-mile coastline got a long list of Ds and Fs – the lowest in the state – on the annual Heal the Bay report card last month, despite the dry season and decrease in normal storm drain and creek runoff pollution.

Heal the Bay, a Santa Monica-based nonprofit environmental group concerned with the conditions of California beaches and beachgoers, released its 17th Annual Beach Report Card study in late May. The results highlighted a serious decline in Long Beach's coastal water quality compared to the previous year.

Of the 25 Long Beach testing locations, the eastside of the Belmont Veterans Memorial Pier, parts of Alamitos Bay, Mother's Beach and the Colorado Lagoon showed significant bacterial contamination in all three time periods monitored. Low grades mean beach visitors may be more susceptible to illnesses, such as stomach flu, ear infection, upper respiratory infection or full-body skin rashes.

The combination of poor water quality readings in the majority of Long Beach's testing stations provoked Heal the Bay to give Long Beach the yearly "Beach Bummer" designation.

Los Angeles County ranked among the worst in the state as well, claiming seven of the 10 most polluted California beaches. Long Beach's poor grades brought L.A. County's rank way down this year, even though many of the other beaches in the county were closer to the state average – 56 percent As and Bs, according to Heal the Bay.

However, the report notes that L.A. County, like certain beaches in San Diego County, monitors for pollution at the mouth of its storm drains and creeks, referred to as "point zero," where pollution tends to be more concentrated and, therefore, more dangerous.

Various local health agencies and dischargers recorded and analyzed data for Heal the Bay at nearly 500 shoreline-monitoring stations along the coast from Santa Barbara to San Diego. Measurements were made with regard to three time periods: summer dry season, wet weather season and year-round dry weather conditions.

Although coastal waters may contain heavy metals, carcinogens, toxins and viruses, Heal the Bay only analyzes water samples for three indicator bacteria: total coliform (originating from soil, plants and animals), fecal coliform and Enterococcus (both from mammals and birds). Bacterial indicators don't usually cause beachgoers illness, but signify that harmful pathogenic microorganisms, like bacteria, protozoa and viruses, are more likely to contaminate the water.

The report also considered if the testing station was along an open ocean beach, a beach adjacent to a creek, river or storm drain, and/or a beach located within an enclosed water body.

Long Beach, draped on both sides by the Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers, and girdled by an extensive offshore breakwater system, fulfills two of the three considerations.

"It really isn't fair," said Gwen Goodmanlowe, professor of marine biology at Cal State Long Beach. "Long Beach is at the base of two river mouths and its breakwater prevents any sort of comparable circulation to other beaches. The majority of the pollution, coming from the rivers and staying behind the breakwater, isn't coming from Long Beach, but from cities north of it. And yet, Long Beach gets the bum rap."

Gordana Kajer, chairwoman of the Long Beach chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, said the report was a confirmation of what many environmental watchdog groups already suspected.

"It's nothing that we haven't already heard, bits and pieces, month by month," Kajer said. "Now that the problem is a public eyesore, maybe it will get the attention it needs and the community will get involved."

Kajer also said that a meeting between the city and local environmental groups like Surfrider was scheduled for June 11, by Long Beach city officials, regarding remedial action on the issue, but was canceled until further notice.

City officials are at a loss to explain the failing grades, although Long Beach water quality has been in focus for some time now.

"This really is a complex problem," said Nelson Kerr, manager of Long Beach's Bureau of Environmental Health. "But everybody owns this problem. [Long Beach is] the stewards in this scenario because we're at the end of the line and we need to take the strongest approach to fix it."

Kerr said Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster set up a water quality task force last summer after Heal the Bay's 2006 Summer Report Card came out around Labor Day with similarly failing results.

"The task force's concentration used to be on only the local bays and lagoons," Kerr said. "Now, however, we've expanded our research to the coastal regions as well, and we're bringing in scientist and researchers from local Cal State universities and resources from the Long Beach Aquarium to solve this problem."

James Alamillo, manager of Heal the Bay's Beach Report Card program, said the problem may be too costly and consuming for Long Beach's Health and Human Services Department to handle alone.

"Any agency that monitors water quality where three out of four water samples – or 75 percent of the total water samples – come back contaminated has an obligation to enforce remediation," Alamillo said.

In its report, Heal the Bay recommended that the city of Long Beach conduct a "comprehensive sanitary survey" to investigate the "magnitude and frequency of fecal bacteria exceedances this past year."

City officials are working with Heal the Bay and looking for external assistance to find the cause of the increased bacteria indicators in Long Beach's coastal waters.

Alamillo said speculated causes for the poor water quality in Long Beach during such a dry winter season are increased port traffic waste and cruise ships docking in Long Beach, in addition to topographical features unique to the coastal city.

Plans for action are in the works. Third District City Coucilman Gary DeLong said the city will involve the California Coastal Commission and other environmentally concerned groups in Long Beach's water quality restoration plans.

"The mayor, City Councilwoman Suja Lowenthal and myself, among others, are looking to bring resources from outside the city to remedy this situation," DeLong said. "We'd like to incorporate a fresh new set of eyes to see and fix these problems."

For Long Beach, fresh water is a long way off, however.

"It's true that a lot is being done to help Long Beach's water quality," DeLong said. "But clearly, it's not enough."

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