America's Finest City has America's most polluted beaches

NRDC report shows 1,347 California beach closings and advisories from pollution in 1995: 437 more than in 1994. San Diego Tops list with 338 closings and advisories and 3 permanent closures

by Carolyn Chase and NRDC
he American public's straightforward distrust of government seemed well-founded when upon returning to "America's Finest City" I received a report noting that San Diego's beaches were the most closed and most often polluted, and the figures were rising, not falling.
While it's popular to point to Mexican sewage as the main source of the problem, a glance through the report of beach closings reveals that the vast number of sewage-related closings are too far north to be Mexican sewage. No, it's relatively pure homegrown waste.
What's the deal?
The past few years have seen rising sewer fees - but where is our sewer system for the 21st century? Not here in San Diego. Compared to Tijuana, this is a sanitary paradise; compared to the rest of the country, the beaches are still - as so well put during the America's Cup sewer fiasco a few years back - "where the effluent meets the affluent."

It's closing time

The state of California features some of the most popular beach spots in the country for tourists and residents alike. Yet these beachgoers are not assured of safe swimming water. Beach closings and advisories along California's beaches topped l,300 for 1995 - up 437 from 1994, according to the sixth annual Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) report, Testing the Waters VI: Who Knows What You 're Getting Into?
Among California's highest list of closures and advisories were: San Diego with 338 closings and advisories and three permanent beach closings; San Francisco with 331 closings and advisories; Santa Barbara with 224 closings and advisories and three permanent beach closings; San Mateo with 180 advisories and closings and one permanent beach closing; and Orange County with 132 advisories and closings.
Testing the Waters V noted that disease-carrying organisms, primarily from stormwater runoff and sewage overflows, prompted 3,522 closings and advisories last year at ocean, bay and Great Lakes beaches across the nation. This is an increase of 50 percent over 1994's figures. The NRDC report surveyed more than 32 coastal and Great Lakes states as well as U.S. territories.


While California has set standards for beachwater quality in the California Code of Regulations (CCR), and does require posting of closings and advisories as well as regular reports to the state for violation of CCR standards, monitoring and closure proceedings are left up to the counties. Some counties, such as Ventura, Mendocino, and Santa Barbara, do not have a regular monitoring program in place.
In 1995, nine of California's 17 counties and the Pt. Reyes National Seashore regularly monitored their ocean and bay beachwater for swimmer safety. These nine counties are: Alameda, Los Angeles, Monterey, Orange, San Diego, San Francisco, San Luis Obispo, San Mateo, and Santa Cruz. In addition to regular monitoring, Los Angeles, Orange, Santa Cruz and San Diego counties also issue rainfall advisories. But several counties that support robust coastal recreation, including Santa Barbara, Ventura, Marin, Mendocino, Del Norte, Contra Costa, Humbolt and Sonoma, do not have regular recreational beach monitoring programs.

A higher standard

The report also notes that the California code includes only a standard for total coliform, which is an indicator bacteria that is not necessarily disease-carrying itself, but is present when disease-carrying pathogens are present. Both the EPA and the National Technical Advisory Committee reject this standard as inadequate.
California's State Water Quality Board has a California Ocean Plan that does contain standards for enterococcus and fecal coliform - bacteria born in animal and human waste that can cause illnesses or indicate the presence of other harmful bacteria - but few counties have adopted these standards.
While testing and publicizing more than most counties, San Diego has not adopted these new standards. San Diego still only tests for e coli along 61 miles of County coastal waters from San Clemente to the border.
"It's a big misconception that monitoring programs are prohibitively expensive," said Dare Fuller, attorney and Testing the Waters author. "Average monitoring costs among the most comprehensive and recommended programs are about $2,650 per mile. These monitoring costs are reasonable and well worth the investment in public health and swimmer safety."

Local pollution solution

In the last 5 months, 509 samples were taken, with a "lot of non-detects" - but many positives as well. The County Department of Environmental Health usually issues 1 to 2 advisories per week but has no budget to increase test types or do much preventative work. They seem to always be in a reaction mode from crisis to crisis. Everyone loves the beach and the water and would really, really like it to be clean, but somehow either the funds or the execution is lacking.
San Diego County beaches are impacted by local sources of pollution. The San Diego Baykeeper and NRDC are working to get polluters such as the San Diego shipyards to start complying with direct discharge and stormwater laws.
And then, of course, there's the sewage-contaminated waters from Mexico's Tijuana River, which discharges at southern San Diego beaches. 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.
The Mexican government and the EPA have joined forces to construct a new sewage treatment plant. The International Boundary and Water Commission Project finalized an Environmental Impact Statement in 1994, and construction of the plant is underway. The advanced primary treatment facility is expected to be on-line in December 1996. The Regional Board is currently considering how to permit the facility, since it is a foreign facility discharging into San Diego's waters.
Monitoring would seem the minimum required at this point, but when are we going to build the sewer systems needed to handle what we have - or stop permitting additions to the system? When are we going to get serious about reducing the amount of sewage failure and overflow pollution on our coast? How about a moratorium on new sewer hookups until beach closure and pollution rates fall? Any and all area mayors and council members are encouraged to reply.

For questions about testing and monitoring, contact Kathy Stone, County Department of Environmental Health: 338-2386 . The entire Testing the Waters VI report can be accessed through NRDC's Web site at

San Diego County 1995 Ocean and Bay Closings and Advisories

Closed  Open  Beach	                              Source/Cause
1/1     2/8   Mission Bay                          Rain
1/3     1/6   Countywide advisory* (Precautionary) rain
1/4     1/19  Imperial Beach                       Rain/sewage
1/5     1/8   Countywide advisory* (Precautionary) Sewage contamination
1/6     1/15  San Diego Bay                        Sewage overflows
1/7     1/17  Cardiff St. Bch.                     Sewage overflows
1/8     1/11  Batiquitos Lgn.                      Sewage overflows
1/12    1/15  San Diego Bay                        Sewage overflows
1/12    1/15  Countywide advisory* (Precautionary) sewage contamination
1/14    1/19  Buena Vista Lgn.                     Sewage overflows
1/19    1/23  Windansea Pk.                        Sewage overflows
1/25    1/27  Cardiff                              Sewage overflows
1/25    1/30  Imperial Beach                       Rain/sewage
2/2     2/6   San Diego Bay                        Sewage overflows
2/4     2/7   Cardiff                              Sewage overflows
2/14    2/17  Countywide advisory* (Precautionary) rain
2/14    2/23  Imperial Beach                       Rain/sewage
2/15    2/23  Mission Bay                          Rain
2/24    2/28  Imperial Beach                       Rain/sewage
2/26	 3/1   San Diego Bay                        Sewage overflows
2/26	 3/27  Mission Bay                          Rain
3/1     3/31  Imperial Beach                       Rain/sewage
3/5     3/8   Buena Vista Lgn.                     Rain/sewage
3/5     3/14  San Diego Bay                        Sewage overflows
3/6     3/9   Countywide advisory* (Precautionary) Sewage contamination
3/6     3/18  Batiquitos Lgn                       Sewage overflows
3/6     3/29  Cardiff                              Sewage overflows
3/11    3/17  San Onofre SB                        Sewage overflows
3/12    3/15  Countywide advisory* (Precautionary) Rain
3/27    3/28  La Jolla                             Pump-station failure
4/15    4/18  Cardiff                              Sewage overflows
4/17    4/24  Mission Bay                          Rain
4/25    4/30  Imperial Beach                       Pump-station failure
4/26    4/28  La Jolla                             Pump-station failure
5/1     5/3   Imperial Beach                       Pump-station failure
5/11    5/13  Imperial Beach                       Pump-station failure
5/22    5/25  Cardiff                              Sewage overflows
5/27    6/2   Mission Bay                          Rain
6/15    6/18  La Jolla                             Pump-station failure
6/20    6/23  San Diego Bay                        Sewage overflows
7/1     7/5   San Diego Bay                        Sewage overflows
7/4     7/7   Sunset Cliffs                        Sewage overflows
7/14    7/16  Windansea Pk.                        Sewage overflows
7/23    7/25  Sunset Cliffs                        Sewage overflows
8/4     8/9   La Jolla                             Pump-station failure
8/7     8/11  Torrey Pines State Park              Sewage overflows
8/26    8/28  Windansea Pk.                        Sewage overflows
8/31    9/2   Sunset Cliffs                        Sewage overflows
9/3     9/7   Del Mar Beach                        Sewage overflows
9/7     9/9   Mission Bay                          Sewage overflows
9/8     9/9   La Jolla                             Pump-station failure
9/16    9/18  San Diego Bay                        Sewage overflows
9/22    9/25  San Diego Bay                        Sewage overflows
10/14   10/16 Del Mar Beach                        Sewage overflows
10/26   10/29 Carlsbd St. Bch.                     Sewage overflows
11/12   11/14 San Diego Bay                        Sewage overflows
12/1    12/2  Torrey Pines State Park              Sewage overflows
permanent     San Luis Rey River Outlet, Oceanside Chronically poor water quality	
permanent	    Loma Alta Lagoon,Buccaneer Bch,O'side Chronically poor water quality
permanent     South end of Seacoast the Int'l Border Chronically poor water quality

Subtotal: at least 338, plus 3 permanent
* Advisory warns against swimming in coastal recreational waters throughout the county near storm drains, creeks, rivers, and lagoon outlets.