Beach quality testing in California has plummeted in recent years, increasing surfers’ risk of unknowingly exposing themselves to contaminated water, according to a report by the Los Angeles Times. With no clear state funding for testing after this year, advocacy groups like Surfrider Foundation and Santa Barbara Channelkeeper are stepping up to fill the gap.
Surfrider Foundation began testing beaches in the early ’90s, due to the lack of public information on water quality, but bowed out to county agencies in 1999, after a California law required official publicized beach monitoring throughout the state. California led the country in beach quality monitoring, paving the way for the Federal Beach Act, which established water-testing requirements around the nation.
It’s a decade later, and water testing in California has fallen to an all-time low since the policy change. In 2008, the state cut the project’s $1 million budget, leaving health agencies scrambling to continue testing with emergency bond funds, which are expected to run out by the end of the year. By law, counties are not required to continue the beach monitoring without proper funding, prompting Surfrider to conduct its own testing.
“Some of the counties will basically take the winter off,” says Surfrider’s Coastal Management Coordinator, Rick Wilson. The counties are prioritizing and assume there will be fewer beach-goers during the colder months, he says. Many Surfrider chapters are using volunteers to raise funds for lab equipment, collect samples, and publicize test results on the web.
“We’re not a state certified lab, so we’re not necessarily saying to close the beach because of our results,” says Wilson. “But it’s good general information to know whether the bacteria counts are high or low.”
Water with high levels of bacteria, sourced from sewage systems, leaking septic tanks or animal waste, makes surfers vulnerable to illness, rashes and infections. And after the 2008 winter budget cuts, Santa Barbara Channelkeeper took over monitoring several county beaches, posting the contamination levels from spots like Rincon and El Capitan State Beach.
It’s common for locals to complain of such ailments after surfing certain spots, says Ben Pitterle, the Watershed Group’s Program Director. But coupled with the best swells of the season, even the worst contamination reports can be ignored. Pitterle admits that deciding whether or not to jump in questionable water leads to an unfair give and take, in which good surf usually wins. “If the surf’s not that good and it’s dirty, I’ll stay out,” he says. “I think most surfers know what they’re getting into-if the surf’s good enough, they’re probably going to go for it anyways.”
Paul Jenkin, Environmental Coordinator for Ventura County’s Surfrider Chapter, suffers from frequent ear infections and once had mononucleosis, allegedly caused by poor water quality. The Ventura Surfrider chapter partners with Pitterle’s group to test the often-neglected fresh water streams feeding to the central coastline. He believes more people should report illness after surfing dirty water, even when the correlation is difficult to confirm. “I think a lot of surfers think, ‘Oh yeah bummer I got sick,’ and just kind of move on with things. But if nobody reports then nobody knows. We need to demonstrate that there really is a health risk,” he says.
Surfers shouldn’t ignore useful albeit bothersome guidelines, like showering post-session and staying out of the water for 72 hours after rainfall. When deciding whether to go to beaches that are near heavy development, creek mouths, or storm drains, Wilson suggests choosing spots with the most natural surroundings. “Where [polluted] water tends to collect, then spill out to the ocean, is typically worse than a spot half a mile away,” says Wilson.
California coast residents testing the neglected beaches are hoping for county programs to resume this winter. “We’re definitely discouraged that the funding for this kind of important testing is being cut,” says Pitterle. “We hope as things turn around, and as the economy improves, it will again become a priority.”