Community, Diversity, Sustainability and other Overused Words

Drought Has a Silver Lining: Cleaner Water

The severe drought has given Los Angeles County residents another reason to flock to local beaches - water quality has significantly improved up and down the coast in the summer months, according to Heal the Bay's annual Beach Report Card released Thursday.

In what has become an annual tradition before the Memorial Day weekend, the Santa Monica nonprofit doled out grades based on the amount of bacteria in the ocean for all the beaches along the West Coast over the past year.

California's record low rainfall translates to a large reduction in the amount of polluted runoff funneling into the ocean, bumping up water quality grades. Most notably, summer scores in Los Angeles County were well above the county's five-year average.

"In L.A. County, water quality was generally pretty good during dry weather," said Kirsten James, Heal the Bay's science and policy director of water quality, during a news conference at the Hyperion sewage treatment plant near El Segundo.

Eight county beaches made Heal the Bay's "Honor Roll," earning A+ grades across the board, James said. L.A. County summer A and B grades were up 6 percent from last year to 90 percent. Except for the Santa Monica Pier, every Santa Monica Bay ocean beach scored an A or B grade during summer weather, and 97 percent of beaches from Leo Carrillo to Cabrillo oceanside earned A or B grades.

Heal the Bay's Beach Report Card prides itself as a critical tool for beachgoers to decide where and when to visit local beaches.

Five agencies in L.A. County contribute water monitoring data to Heal the Bay. The samples are collected during summer dry weather (April through October), winter dry weather (November through March) and year-round wet weather (April 2013 to March 2014 for this report).

Agency workers visit each location and collect samples from ankle-deep water, which is where smaller children typically play, said Mike Grimmer, Beach Report Card manager. Water samples are then tested for bacteria. Runoff from creeks, rivers and storm drains can contain toxic heavy metals, pesticides, fertilizers, animal waste and even human sewage.

The better the grade a beach receives, the lower the risk of swimmers contracting an illness such as stomach flu, skin rashes and upper respiratory infections.

Among South Bay beaches, most boasted high scores in both dry and wet weather conditions.

Malaga Cove, Abalone Cove and Portuguese Bend Cove on the Palos Verdes Peninsula earned A+ grades across the board. The Redondo Beach and Torrance sites all earned A grades in the summer dry months, and all but the Redondo Beach pier earned A+ grades in wet weather.

But L.A. County still leads the state in the number of beaches with poor water quality.

Wet weather grades in the county slipped to 50 percent A or B grades in 2013-14, with 40 percent of sample sites receiving F grades, compared to 21 percent in the last report.

Cabrillo Beach harborside in San Pedro popped up yet again on the group's list of 10 "Beach Bummers" for its chronically poor water quality grades, even though more than $20 million has been invested in water quality improvements.

Mother's Beach in Marina del Rey came in at No. 3 on the "Beach Bummers" list for "extremely poor" water quality this past year. According to Heal the Bay, a circulation device that had been installed to aid beach water flow and bacteria dilution was not functioning for most of the year because of maintenance issues.

"I would not swim at the 'Beach Bummers.' I would take my family elsewhere," Grimmer said. "It doesn't mean you're definitely going to get sick, but when grades start to fall below a B there's an increased risk of getting skin rashes and stomach ailments just from water contact at those locations."

Among those earning F grades in the year-round wet weather category were the 28th Street drain in Manhattan Beach, the Herondo Street storm drain in Hermosa Beach and the Ballona Creek mouth and Culver Boulevard drain at Dockweiler State Beach.

Heal the Bay noted that C summer grades at the Malibu and Redondo Beach piers are alarming considering this has been one of the driest years on record.

"Typically, during dry weather or periods of drought, beach water quality shows improvement as stormwater runoff volumes are reduced," the report said. "This year's mediocre dry weather grades are an indicator of pollution problems at these sites."

Noting the Redondo Beach pier's low grade and the Santa Monica Pier's inclusion on the "Beach Bummers" list, Grimmer said piers are problematic due to several variables - people, wildlife, businesses, sewers and wastewaster.

Heal the Bay and city officials Thursday noted the success of water quality improvement programs, such as low-impact development ordinances and low-flow diversion projects, but emphasized the need to find funding for increased efforts.

"With the drought threatening our local water supplies, we're advocating to capture valuable rainwater, cleanse it and use it as a local water supply," James said. "Progressive city planning, smart public infrastructure and low-impact development would turn a nuisance into an asset."

Enrique Zaldivar, director of the Los Angeles city Bureau of Sanitation, said the city's five diversion structures for water runoff along Pacific Coast Highway "are now being upgraded so hundreds of thousands of gallons of polluted runoff can be diverted into this very place (the treatment plant) year-round for filtering and cleanup."

"The result will be more A grades and less motor oil, animal waste and pesticides in the Santa Monica Bay."


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