At the beach: ecology and economy
America's Finest City? San Diego is first - in beach closures.
by Carolyn Chase
he San Diego Bay and the north part of San Diego County
are fed by a series of rivers that are short by California standards: the
San Luis Rey, San Diego, San Margarita and Sweetwater Rivers. These rivers
and the streams that feed into them make up the arteries in our region's
watershed. What flows into and through them ends up on local beaches, bays
and wetlands. How our natural arteries are doing and what exactly is flowing
into them has been the focus of several reports last summer concerning the
importance of coastal zones for both the economy and our health.
Three reports, Testing the Waters V, State of the
Coasts and Changing the Course of California's Water, indicate
trashed beaches and contaminated water are degrading ecosystems and costing
states millions in tourist and commercial revenues, as well as jobs. In
undeveloped areas, the rivers have been heavily mined for sand and gravel.
In urbanized areas, the streams have been channeled and are vulnerable to
illegal dumping. County beaches are impacted by local sources of pollution
as well as by sewage-contaminated waters flowing north from Mexico's Tijuana
On the beach
San Diego County had by far the largest number of polluted beach closings
statewide with a total of 296 "events" plus 1 "extended"
and 3 permanent closings. High levels of microbial pathogens (disease-causing
microorganisms) from human and animal wastes are the primary causes of beach
closings. These wastes enter coastal waters from municipal sewage treatment
plants, combined sewer overflows, "sanitary" sewer overflows,
urban stormwater systems and as polluted runoff from land. By a wide majority,
most San Diego beach closings were related to "sanitary sewer overflows."
Population growth has far outpaced Tijuana's ability
to process sewage, so an average of 3 million gallons of raw sewage are
diverted into river and ocean waters every day. Warning signs are now permanently
posted from the south end of Seacoast Drive in Imperial Beach south to the
border. The International Treatment Plant project is progressing and the
advanced primary treatment works portion is expected to be on-line in December
Swimmers can contract illnesses from several pathogens
that may be found in polluted waters. Viruses are believed to be the major
cause of swimming-associated diseases and are responsible for gastroenteritis
and hepatitis, the two most common swimming-associated diseases worldwide.
Gastroenteritis can also be caused by bacteria and is a common term for
a variety of diseases that can have one or all of the following symptoms:
diarrhea, stomachache, vomiting, nausea, headache and fever. Other bacterial
diseases that can be contracted by swimmers include: salmonellosis, shigellosis,
and infection caused by E. coli (a toxigenic type of fecal coliform bacteria).
Other microbial pathogens found at varying concentrations in recreational
waters include amoeba and protozoa, which can cause giardiasis, amoebic
dysentery, skin rashes and "pink eye" condition. AIDS and many
other diseases are not carried by enteric pathogens (those that live in
the human intestine) in contaminated water.
A royal flush
The region's climate - usually dry and temperate with
sporadic heavy rains - has raised particular concerns about the consequences
of "first flushes," i.e., the initial rains after a dry period,
which wash anything and everything down the streets and storm drains and
into the surf and beaches. Researchers are trying to determine just how
much of the water quality problems associated with runoff occur in the first
hours of the first storm of the season. The results could shape efforts
to control pollution. San Diego County, 18 cities and the San Diego Unified
Port District, which share a single stormwater pollution permit, are expected
to receive a new permit from the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control
Board, outlining additional efforts that will have to be made to reduce
pollution in runoff.
Testing the Waters V, the Natural Resources Defense
Council's (NRDC) fifth annual beach survey, reports 910 California beach
closures in 1994, 336 of which were directly or indirectly related to polluted
runoff. Each year, tourist expenditures along the California coast total
$38 billion. Beach closures are one example of how polluted runoff puts
these tourist dollars at risk. According to the report, closing a San Diego
beach for two days costs the local and state economy $30,525. These costs
were determined by applying a "lost use value" per person per
day to the number of people denied use of the beach each day of closure.
The losses represent what users, on average, would have been willing to
pay to use the beach had it not been closed. This figure does not include
any consideration of economics losses to businesses that serve the beach
or beach users.
State of the Coasts, the Coast Alliance's state-by-state
analysis of America's coastal resources, also underlines the relationship
between a healthy coastal environment and a healthy economy. For example:
This report shows that coastal land use regulations
in the Pacific Coast states, "have shaped, not prohibited development.
In the 15 years following passage of California's Coastal Act, San Diego
County was the second highest-ranking county in the country in the number
of new multi-unit residential construction projects." (Source: Building
Along America's Coast: 20 years of Building Permits, 1970-1989, U.S. Department
- By restoring a degraded wetland, a Huntington Beach firefighter preserved
a sensitive ecosystem and saved Orange County $3.5 million in previously
required, but now unnecessary flood channel improvements.
- A San Diego developer found he could increase the sale of his houses
by 25 percent if he scaled back his development by 15 percent and added
natural open space corridors. This increase in the quality of life by design,
increased the desirability of the development.The report stresses, however,
that the very qualities that attract people to the coast to live, work and
play are at risk. Because of the tremendous levels of activity they support,
coastal areas are economic and environmental hotspots.
- 80 percent of Californians live within an hour's drive of the coasts.
- With a population density of 605 persons per square mile, Los Angeles,
Orange and San Diego counties support a population density 6 times the national
- 70,000 Californians are employed by tourism, port operations and commercial
fishing, contributing $17.3 billion to the state's economy in 1992.
- 56 percent of California's Gross State Product comes from the coastal
The "Coastal Zone Management Act" (CZMA), like much other federal
environmental law, is up for reauthorization by the Congress. Having worked
and surfed along the coast, local Congressman Brian Bilbray is also touting
the appropriate role of federal legislation.
"Having served as a coastal commissioner during
my time in local government, I have had the opportunity to see firsthand
how the CZMA can improve both the environment and the economy of coastal
communities," he writes. "By sharing decision-making authority
with those locally-elected officials who actually implement a given law
in their state or community, the CZMA has played a major role in brokering
compromises between the need for conservation of sensitive coastal areas
and the demands of rapidly growing and developing coastal communities."
He continues, "I am planning to draft legislation to require coastal
authorities to publicly post the level of toxins and contaminants present
in the ocean, so that people can make informed decisions about their recreational
A third report, Changing the Course of California's
Water, published by The Lindsay Museum and funded by the U.S. EPA, focuses
solely on California's polluted runoff problem. Like its national counterparts,
this report also indicates strong linkages between the California environment
and economy. According to the report, 50 to 80 percent of all water quality
problems in California are due to stormwater pollution. At risk are such
coastal economic engines as the 140 million annual visitor days logged at
beaches statewide and the annual $500 million Southern California sport
A pound of prevention
Polluted runoff is created unknowingly by individuals every day. If contaminants
are kept out of streets and gutters, substantial beach and ocean pollution
can be prevented. Once washed or blown into gutters and storm drains, pollutants
are carried through flood control channels to the ocean. Because water from
flood control outlets is not treated before reaching the ocean, these pollutants
enter the surf at the recreational beaches used by millions each year.
To prevent watershed pollution:
- Remember that what is in your gutter today can be in the streams and
- Report polluting activities to the Toxics Watch Hotline at the Environmental
Health Coalition 235-0281.
- Volunteer with a local organization working to make your waters fishable
- Call, write or fax your elected officials, including members of Congress,
to show your support for strong clean water requirements.
- Support appropriate sewage infrastructure upgrades and maintenance.
- Look for and use alternatives to pesticides and other toxic products.
Carolyn Chase is chairperson of the City of San Diego Waste Management
Advisory Board, a member of the Peñasquitos Canyon Citizens Advisory
Council and recipient of the mayor's 1994 Spirit of San Diego Award for
What's on the beach?
he 1994 International Coastal Cleanup Results report
from the Center for Marine Conservation documents the types of debris that
threaten marine species. The data is the result of a world-wide collection
effort performed by 215,000 volunteers. They covered 7,992 miles of coasts,
beaches and waterways in 61 countries. More than 8 million pieces of trash
were collected over a three-hour period, weighing in at more than 4 million
At the top of the "Dirty Dozen" list are cigarette butts, of which
1.5 million were picked up by volunteers. Close to a quarter million of
straws and beverage cans were also collected.
One hundred and five animals were found entangled in different kinds of
debris, particularly plastic. Annex V of the International Convention for
the Prevention of Pollution from Ships at Sea regulates the dumping of debris
from ships and the Center has called on countries to ratify this. Seventy-four
countries are parties to this treaty.
Trash in paradise - paper plates, aluminum cans and other refuse from
a picnic litters this otherwise pristine lava-covered beach in Hawaii