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Pollution in Newport Bay Stays High

Times Staff Writer

Recent water sampling in Newport Bay confirms that high bacteria levels remain a problem but shows improvement on weekends over a 1984 study, suggesting that a Newport Beach campaign against dumping of toilet waste from boats may be working.

Although bacteria counts exceeded standards for water contact sports at several of seven sites sampled, the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board study, which is scheduled to be released today, said monitoring shows no health threat.

In a separate draft report to be submitted to the state Legislature on Nov. 15, the regional board outlined programs that are under way and an “action plan” to attack three areas of pollution threatening the Upper and Lower Newport Bay: bacterial contamination, toxic materials and siltation.

No Substantial Threat

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“According to the information (in the report), there is no substantial public health threat,” state Sen. Marian Bergeson (R-Newport Beach) said Thursday. “But our concern is that there not be one. . . . “

“It’s really a question of responsibility of the people using the bay,” said Bergeson, whose legislation required the report.

Findings of the latest bacterial study showed excessive levels of coliform and enterococcal bacteria at several of the stations studied, especially at the Bahia Corinthian Yacht Club near the harbor entrance, at the Balboa Bay Club across from Lido Isle, and on two sample dates at Promontory Bay, an inlet area east of Linda Isle.

However, results of the six-week study from mid-July to mid-August found the highest levels of enterococcal bacteria occurring on Thursdays, rather than on Sundays, after relatively heavy use of the bay by recreational boaters. (Enterococcal bacteria is found in the waste of humans and some animals and closely correlates with illness among swimmers, according to an Environmental Protection Agency study.)

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Success Claimed

“This is the opposite of the finding of the 1984 study and suggests that the educational campaign of the City of Newport Beach to eliminate vessel waste discharge is having a positive effect,” the report said.

But that leaves unanswered the question of where the bacteria may be coming from if not the recreational boats in Newport Bay.

“I’m frankly at a loss to determine what could account for this,” said Joanne E. Schneider, regional board environmental specialist with responsibility for the Upper and Lower Newport Bay.

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“We think we are seeing lower counts on Sundays because of public education programs by the City of Newport Beach, but I really don’t know why we got higher counts on Thursdays,” Schneider said Thursday.

“We recognize there are a multitude of potential sources, which include birds and storm runoff, which wasn’t a factor because we didn’t have any storms during the study. It could be bacteria derived from fertilizers from (agricultural) irrigation runoff, or perhaps bacteria carried in soil, or runoff from urban areas,” including pet droppings, she said.

Schneider said a major storm drain outlet emptying into Newport Bay at Bahia Corinthian Yacht Club is a suspected source, but sampling at the storm drain was not feasible.

But most of those sources do not pose a threat to public health, Schneider said, unlike human waste. She said attention must remain focused on the campaign to require shipboard sanitary holding tanks and convenient, functioning pump-out stations to receive and treat the waste.

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New Stations Planned

“The City of Newport Beach is looking to put in five more pump-out stations for a total of nine, and that’s probably not going to be adequate,” Schneider said.

According to the summary report for the Legislature, one Northern California harbor has 30 stations for 5,000 boats. Newport Bay has about 9,000 boats, and slip space is at a premium.

“They (the pump-out stations) run about $1,000 or so each, but it’s not just a question of the cost of the facility,” Schneider said. “It means eliminating a boat space, and that means money lost to marina operators.”

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Beyond that, the report recommends changes in the 1977 federal Clean Water Act to give local agencies the authority to require boats to have holding tanks.

Other recommendations aimed at controlling bacteria include directing the City of Newport Beach to pursue “more aggressively . . . the installation of more pump-out stations, require sanitary waste holding tanks aboard boats used as residences and continued public education efforts to prevent human waste from getting into the bay.”

Changes to Be Sought

Bergeson said she will be working with congressional officials to try to get the needed changes in the federal law.

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Silt and sediment pouring downstream have been thought to be prime carriers of bacteria and toxic substances, including the banned pesticide DDT--which was found at the highest level ever recorded in mussels transplanted in Newport Bay--and trace metals like lead, zinc and copper as well as other organic compounds.

Bergeson said Thursday she was “pleased” to see that a massive, ongoing silt removal and prevention project in the Upper Newport Bay Ecological Reserve and along the bay’s inland tributaries appears successful in controlling sediment flow downstream. The report also recommends that the cities in the bay watershed adopt grading ordinances that would reduce silt flow.

With toxic substances, Schneider said, the regional board still is faced with defining the extent of the problem and determining whether such toxins as DDT showing up in shellfish and in small minnows in the Upper Bay and its main tributary, San Diego Creek, are freshly used materials or the result of historic spraying in the central county agricultural belt.

A Tough Problem’

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“Toxics are going to be a tough problem,” Schneider conceded. “But we don’t see any public health risk from that at this time. Most of those substances are in such low concentrations you can’t detect them. . . . We are concerned, though, about the potential impact on wildlife.”

The regional board succeeded in getting Orange County’s coastline, including the Newport Pier, added to a 1986 state Department of Health Services study of toxins in sport fish. A Bergeson aide said the senator also would try to intercede to get both the Upper and Lower Bay included.

“We all need to understand that it is our bay and our resource, and that we have a responsibility to respect and take care of it in whatever way we can,” Bergeson said.


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