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Southland Leads U.S. in Beach Closings, Warnings : Environment: In Ventura County, coastal areas were designated unsafe for only four days. But the county does not routinely monitor water quality, report says.

TIMES ENVIRONMENTAL WRITER

Beaches across the United States were closed to swimmers or posted with health warnings more than 2,400 times last year, with one-third of them occurring in Southern California, according to an annual report released Wednesday by a national environmental group.

In California, beach closures and advisories due to high bacteria counts more than doubled to 1,397 in 1993, compared to 609 the year before, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council report.

The large number of health advisories in California does not mean that the region has the nation’s most contaminated beaches. Instead, most of the disparity is attributed to local health agencies that test more frequently and are quicker to warn the public than their counterparts elsewhere.

In Ventura County, beaches were closed or posted unsafe for only four days in 1993 due to an 85,000-gallon oil spill near McGrath State Beach. But the group points out that Ventura County is the only Southern California county that does not routinely test its beaches for bacteria. Instead, the county monitors beaches for pollution only after a complaint or spill.

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“Even though the Ventura County Environmental Health Division developed a proposal for routine ocean water-quality monitoring, there is no funding, so it has not been implemented,” the report said.

Nearly all of California’s increase was due to numerous health advisories in San Diego County, where heavy winter storms caused sewer system breakdowns or washed large volumes of runoff to sea. San Diego County posted 727 warnings last year--by far the most in the nation--including some in January and February that lasted several weeks and encompassed much of the county’s coastline.

“The blame should not lie with those whose numbers are high,” said NRDC attorney Everett DeLano in Los Angeles. “This does not mean that San Diego beaches are more heavily polluted than Los Angeles County’s, rather that San Diego is doing a better job of protecting the public and closing the beaches when they should be closed.”

In Los Angeles County, beaches were closed or posted with warnings 59 times--an increase from 37 in 1992, according to the report. About half were along a 20-mile stretch of Santa Monica Bay from Topanga Canyon Boulevard to the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

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In most cases, the warnings were triggered by high coliform bacteria counts, which indicate that the water has been contaminated by human sewage or animal waste from spills or river runoff.

But since there are no national standards, how frequently beaches are tested for coliform bacteria and under what conditions they are closed to the public varies widely from state to state--even county to county--and from year to year.

For instance, eight states, including Oregon, Washington and most of the Gulf Coast, do not monitor coastal water and issue no public warnings. But health agencies in Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties sample a large number of beaches weekly and issue public advisories because of strong interest from swimmers, surfers and environmental groups.

Dan Avero, deputy environmental health director for San Diego County, said the county’s high number of advisories is at least partially due to its frequency of water tests and its policy of posting warnings after rain.

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“Some jurisdictions don’t have the funding to do routine monitoring. We probably do more sampling and monitoring than any other jurisdiction,” he said. “We take a cautious approach in deciding to go out with the advisories. Our priority is to protect public health and we want to make sure the water is safe for people to swim in.”

Some of San Diego County’s health warnings--187 last year--were triggered at Imperial Beach by persistent problems with sewage flowing up the Tijuana River from Mexico. Frequent storm-related sewage spills also occurred near Oceanside.

Each day that a beach was posted with an advisory is counted as one occasion. At Del Mar Beach on Camp Pendleton, for example, health warnings were issued from Jan. 16 through March 6, amounting to 50 advisories.

In addition to San Diego County’s 727 warnings, two beaches at the mouth of Tijuana River have been permanently closed to swimming because of sewage from Mexico, while two others nearby, Coronado and Loma Alta Lagoon, experienced health advisories that lasted more than six weeks last year. These were counted separately in the report because they lasted for such extended periods.

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The coliform tests used by most counties to determine whether to post warnings are not considered a highly accurate way to measure the real health risks to swimmers and surfers.

While coliform can indicate the presence of raw human sewage, which could spread diseases such as hepatitis and dysentery, it also may point to bird droppings or other animal wastes that are not considered a serious disease threat. But since no reliable means exist to determine the source of the coliform, most health departments in Southern California close beaches as a precaution until the counts are normal.

Nationally, beach closings and advisories decreased slightly in 1993--from 2,619 in 1992 to 2,438, the report said. The national decrease was largely due to below-average rainfall in many parts of the country.

The environmentalists say their report is evidence that Congress, which is debating reauthorization of the Clean Water Act, should incorporate more stringent controls on urban runoff and set uniform standards for when states monitor and close beaches.

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