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Surf’s up, water’s brown

Published on 6/3/2007 on Press Telegram
Environment: SoCal is famed for beaches, but water quality is nothing to brag about.

 By Mireya Navarro, The New York Times
LOS ANGELES – To the naked eye, Surfrider Beach in Malibu couldn't be lovelier: On a recent Friday, in 60-degree weather, the patch of the coastal mountains behind Malibu Pier was shrouded in morning fog. A flock of birds flew low over a sparse crowd of sunbathers, bobbing surfers and a lifeguard doing abdominals on a beach towel in front of his tower.

But Eric Gross, a 28-year-old creative director at his family's graphic design studio who has been coming to Surfrider since childhood for its smooth, manicured wave, quickly shattered any postcard-quality impressions of this premier surfing beach.

Take the stench emanating from the nearby lagoon, where Malibu Creek meets the sea, he noted.

"You see discoloration and big brown blobs, like in a sewer," Gross said of the days when the lagoon overflows and dumps untreated sewage on the waters he uses three to seven times a week. "Sometimes the water just stinks. You wash off in the shower and you've got this smell on you all day."

Then there's the taste. "Have you ever tasted bong water by accident?" he asked. "It's just this muck."

And the sore throats. "Sometimes you don't know if you have a cold or you're sick from the water," Gross said. "Who knows what the long-term effects are."


Bad grades

If Los Angeles County conjures images of a warm paradise of curled waves and palm trees, the locals know better. They live along a coast with the dubious distinction of having seven of the state's 10 most polluted beaches, according to the latest report card from the environmental group Heal the Bay, which has given beaches like Surfrider a failing grade year after year.

Many Southern Californians find contentment just looking at the ocean from their sun decks, grateful for their views and the clean air. But there are those who persist in braving the water, never mind the historic counts of bacteria from fecal matter and other sources that can cause skin rashes, ear infections and gastrointestinal ailments.

So who are these people? Among the fearless: inlanders escaping the suffocating heat; tourists who don't know any better; and die-hard surfers who try to protect themselves by taking vitamins, by making sure their hepatitis and tetanus vaccinations are up to date, and by rinsing body cavities with hydrogen peroxide.

"You get all your shots, you stay away certain times," said Gross' father, Paul, 60, another longtime surfer who comes out three to four times a week. He matter-of-factly detailed his post-surf regimen: "You take showers here and put hydrogen peroxide in your ears and gargle with hydrogen peroxide diluted with water."

L.B. drop

Residents often don't bother with the water. Investigators studying beach attendance for the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission say the beaches of Santa Monica Bay – a 60-mile stretch from Malibu south to the Palos Verdes Peninsula – are drawing almost 1 million fewer visits each year, largely because of public apprehensions about the water.

Water quality typically plummets when it rains, with contaminated runoff from the street and storm drain systems ending up in the ocean.

This year's Heal the Bay report card, released on May 23, found that the state as a whole had above-average water quality because of a drought over the last year, but a dramatic drop in quality in the Long Beach area meant that Los Angeles County retained its status as the state's leading "beach bummer."

Those craving a dip can easily drive to cleaner beaches. Sometimes the closest clean beach is less than a mile away, and 57 percent of Los Angeles County's beaches still score an "A" or "B" in dry weather. But many of the dirty beaches have their own storied appeal and social scenes.

Last weekend, the beach by the Santa Monica Municipal Pier, which sits at the foot of luxury hotels and a bustling commercial district, was packed with the usual mix of tourists, cliques of young people and families, many of them working-class Latinos.

"I try not to swallow the water," said a 26-year-old accountant from Pasadena after taking a dip.

The accountant, who adamantly refused to give his name, said he came to this beach to swim as often as twice a week in the summer because it was near restaurants and bars and he could "tan and go party."

But Jameel Chahal, 22, a friend in the accountant's group who was visiting from Canada, looked around almost in disgust. The water was brown and two dead sea lions had washed up, hardly an enticement to dip in as much as a toe.

Just looking

Many beachgoers come for everything but the water. Charlie and Lizette Figueroa said the temperature had reached 80 degrees by midmorning at their home in Ontario. They decided to pack up a cooler, shovels and buckets for their two children and drive one hour west to Santa Monica. On the beach, the children, ages 2 and 4, made a hole to bury their father while the couple sat on beach chairs fully dressed, enjoying the cool breeze.

No one was getting wet.

"We're here just to relax and for the kids to play in the sand," said Mrs. Figueroa, 23, a supervisor for a bus company. "My kids would rather go in the swimming pool. My son doesn't want to go in here. He says that the water looks dirty."

Linwood Pendleton, a professor in the school of public health at UCLA who is the principal investigator on the study on beach attendance, said that Southern Californians have become unnecessarily fearful of the ocean. He said that the area does a better job at testing water quality than elsewhere in the country, so public awareness of the issue is high.

"People should look around at all the beaches and choose the ones with the lowest risk, but don't stay home," he said. "The beach in Southern California is our Central Park, our open space."

Pendleton is co-author of a study, released last year, that said as many as 1.5 million cases of sickness in Los Angeles and Orange Counties each year could be attributed to bacterial pollution in the ocean. Pendleton said that represented only a 1 percent chance of becoming sick. Even at the worst beaches, he said, the chance of becoming sick is relatively low, 5 to 15 percent.

State and county officials say that this area has the most polluted beaches because it is the state's most populous region, noting that both development and people's behavior – such as not cleaning up after their dogs – contributed to the problem. The county also is among the first in the state to collect samples directly in front of storm drains and creeks, where the water quality is worse.

But the officials said that cities are facing new requirements to limit bacteria at their beaches, and that $135 million in state bonds is going to cover the treatment of storm-related sewage problems at the worst sites.

"California is cleaning up its beaches," said William L. Rukeyser, a spokesman for the state Water Resources Control Board.

Even Surfrider has been on a roll lately, with a string of passing grades in Heal the Bay's weekly report card. For surfers like Eric and Paul Gross, forgoing the beach they consider home base is not an option.

"No matter what the dangers are," the elder Gross said, "this is still one of the best breaks."

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