THE STATE OF THE BEACHES : Winter's storms may be only a dim memory, but after months of cleanup, there are stretches still littered with debris.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

See piers splinter. Watch the Ventura and Santa Clara rivers swell and top their banks, tearing loose trees, picnic tables, tires, chemical drums and refrigerators, then belching these great gobs of gunk into the ocean. Powerful surf deposits the sodden mass on county beaches, leaving splintered-wood jumbles 10 feet high, trees jammed into jetties, golf balls, strawberries, snakes and rotted high-top sneakers.

The record-breaking series of storms that began Jan. 3 produced the worst flooding in the county since 1968, and left behind a mess that awed even experienced hands.

"Every winter leaves debris on the beach and every spring we have to clean it up," said Ventura Public Works Director Ron Calkins. "But those efforts are dwarfed by what happened this winter."

Steve White, lifeguard supervisor for the state Parks and Recreation Department, had one word to describe it: "incomprehensible."

With summer nearly upon us, we embarked on a beach patrol to see how humankind has undone nature's damage. We spent days surveying the beaches, a selfless task undertaken to spare you the inconvenience of loading up the car, the cooler and the sun block only to arrive at a beach that resembles a brier patch.

The following is a rundown of beaches, from the county line on the Rincon down to Port Hueneme:

La Conchita/Mussel Shoals: During the storms, these beaches received little mention, overshadowed by the events just across the Ventura Freeway, where huge chunks of muddy hillside were slurping into the living rooms and streets of La Conchita.

In contrast, La Conchita's beach weathered the storms fairly well. The beach in front of the small Mussel Shoals community is clean. Just to the north, along the wall that rises up along the freeway, there's more debris, some of it quite large: whole trees and big branches, bark peeling, undersides blistered white by the sun.

Most of the big stuff, however, is clustered around culverts. Away from the culverts, the debris thins out into broken sticks and bamboo, though there's still a substantial amount of it. The good news: The beach below the high tide line is clean and smooth.

"The debris is disappearing--it's gradually washing away," said Florence Reynolds, a Mussel Shoals resident of 13 years. "I think this beach is going to be beautiful all summer long."

Oil Piers: This beach, about a mile south of La Conchita, gets its name from the two oil piers that jut into the water. Long ago, someone spray-painted the words "Keep Clean. No Trash" on the guardrail along the road abutting the beach. Mother Nature must have paid attention. The beach between the piers is fine, white sand. Just to the north of the northernmost pier (a beach popular with Jet Ski riders), there is some debris, but most of it is well up and away from the beach, a sinuous line of broken sticks and branches marking an ultra high tide.

The Rincon Parkway: The beaches along the Rincon Parkway are small and washed clean regularly by the tides. There's no debris on them at all, though oftentimes there's no beach, either, making it a damp place to stake a towel.

Faria Beach: The surf here is mostly calm, and low tide exposes some great tide pools, so this is a popular family beach. Faria has been scoured clean, again because high tides generally reach right up to the rock wall that abuts the old Pacific Coast Highway.

Ventura Pier: The pier took a tremendous beating during the storms: about 60 of its pilings washed up on the beach, each of them roughly 45 feet long and weighing over a ton. This didn't do much for the beach surrounding the pier, which was already being drowned in debris spewing out of the Ventura River.

The area north of the pier, to Surfers Point, is the responsibility of the city of Ventura, as is a span of beach that extends roughly 100 yards south of the pier.

In terms of debris, this area was the county's ground zero.

"When I first saw the beach around the pier, I knew it was going to be an incredible amount of work," said Ventura Parks Supervisor Terry Murphy. "We'd cleaned up from storms before, but the material was smaller. It wasn't whole trees."

The city started cleanup the week after the storm, first picking up hazardous waste materials--propane fuel canisters, unlabeled drums, oil containers--along with trash. California Land Clearing of Ventura was hired to haul the big debris off the beach and dump it at Oxnard's Bailard Landfill. City workers, federally funded work crews and volunteers separated trash, rocks and wood, which were hauled off, too. The city also hosted what was informally dubbed "Woodstock '95" for two weekends, when the public was allowed to drive onto the beach near the pier and take wood, a program Murphy said saved the city $16,000.

The transformation has been miraculous. North of the pier to Surfers Point, except for a fringe of debris just above the high-tide line, the beach is clean. Just to the south of the pier, all that remains of the carnage are a few neatly sorted piles of rocks and a thin coat of fine debris.

San Buenaventura State Beach and Pierpont Bay: Ventura and the state worked together to clean the two-mile stretch of beach from San Buenaventura State Beach to Marina Park. California Land Clearing used front-end loaders to lift debris into semi-trailers for the trip to Bailard Landfill, and workers sorted rocks from sticks, piling them in neat stacks so front-end loaders could pick them up. At the end of May, by Murphy's estimate, volunteers and paid workers had spent 9,000 hours hauling 675 tons of debris off the beaches from the pier area south along the entire Pierpont Bay.

Threading through large piles of rock and debris on San Buenaventura State Beach two days before Memorial Day weekend, Lifeguard Supervisor Steve White leaned out of the truck he was driving and spoke to a couple lying in the sun, surrounded by piles of rocks and wood.

"We're getting a little bit better for you, slowly but surely," White said.

White brought his head back in the truck.

"Just a week ago, they wouldn't have been able to see the water because of the debris stacked there," he said.

According to White, Pierpont Bay beaches were hit harder than any other beaches in the county. The Ventura River, said White, spewed debris, while a prevailing down-coast current and big surf deposited it on Pierpont beaches. The Santa Clara River also disgorged enormous amounts of junk, sending it as far as a mile out to sea, where winds and swells pushed large amounts of it back onto Pierpont beaches.

"The bay is a big catch basin," White said. "Basically, we caught it all."

Cleaning up proved frustrating. Often after a beach was clean, a high tide or big swell would sweep debris from littered beaches, depositing it on clean ones. Some of the beaches were cleaned four times. "And debris is still being deposited," says Murphy. "It can be pretty disheartening."

Consequently, for a long time the beaches here remained a patchwork--clean areas bordered stretches that still had a fair amount of debris. Since then, however, nearly all the junk-laden areas have been cleaned up, leaving only a thin soot-like smearing of debris. And barring an unexpected storm, said White, even that will be gone soon.

"By July Fourth weekend, the beaches are going to be looking pretty nice," he said.

And nature isn't strictly a despoiler. Tons of sand deposited offshore by the Ventura and Santa Clara rivers are now being pushed ashore by gentle swells.

"Where there was no beach last year, now we have beach," White said.

Harbor Cove: This small bow of sand inside Ventura Harbor is a popular family beach, offering calm water, plenty of parking, bathrooms and showers.

The beach is still flecked with a liberal spread of small sticks, making walking a careful endeavor, but the large debris is gone.

The Santa Clara River mouth and McGrath State Beach: These beaches were nailed too, thanks to their proximity to the Santa Clara River, which, like the Ventura River, flowed wide, deep and fast in a downstream charge produced only once every 50 years. Cleanup here has been sporadic. This beach is not a priority--it is used mostly by surfers and walkers during the day and partying high school students at night.

Ventura resident Laurie Lemson, who walks the beach regularly, reckons the slow cleanup isn't bad.

"My preference would be that they leave it alone, there's so few natural beaches left," said Lemson, surveying the littered beach just off Surfers Knoll parking lot. "On the other hand, there were mountains of debris. It was hard to get across them just to get to the water."

The beach immediately to the south and north of the Santa Clara River is still a riot of broken limbs and sticks, along with trapped trash. According to White, parts of the beach immediately surrounding the mouth of the river are designated as natural preserve, and heavy machinery isn't allowed. To the south of the river, the beach is used by campers at McGrath State Beach. That area is also heavy with debris.

"We'll have a cleanup operation down there as soon as we can," White said.

Meantime, folks make do. Two hooky-playing college students are down by the water's edge. One pitches. The other swings a bamboo stick, whiffing mightily each time.

Need a bigger bat?

"Need a bigger ball," says the batter, tossing a walnut back to his friend.

Oxnard Shores: According to Oxnard Parks and Facilities Superintendent Michael Henderson, the city has three priority beaches along this stretch: at the intersection of 5th Street and Mandalay Beach Road, at the end of Neptune street in Oxnard Shores, and the section that fronts Oxnard State Beach Park.

Unfortunately, the Oxnard Shores area is down-current from the Santa Clara River. After the storms, Oxnard city employees and federally funded work crews faced mountains of debris. On the beaches north of Mandalay Beach Road, debris is still thick. But head south and conditions are far different. With the exception of a sprinkling of small debris across the dry sand and a single thick strand of debris meandering along the high tide line (including some large branches and logs), most of the mess is gone.

Not everyone regards what is left as nuisance, either.

Vacationing from Sugar Land, Tex., Carmen Edwards holds out a bag filled with a half-dozen long, straight pieces of driftwood.

"This will be great to hang curtains from in my office," Edwards says. "I was going to use wood that I had around my house, but this is more interesting."

Hollywood Beach, Hollywood-by-the-Sea and Silver Strand: Because they are six miles and more from the Santa Clara River, these county-maintained beaches weren't hit as hard as beaches to the north. Still, bulldozers were needed to cart off the big debris and, according to county maintenance worker Rudy Marin, there was plenty of it.

"We filled over 30 huge dumpsters," said Marin, driving along Hollywood Beach and stopping occasionally to toss a log or wood plank in the back of his pickup. "We didn't have as much as the other beaches, but we were pretty close."

There's no sign of it now. All three beaches are groomed as smooth, white and soft as the stuff you see in travel brochures, only you don't have to weather jet lag and customs clerks to get here.

Port Hueneme: Though they are fairly sheltered from river outflow, this time around the beaches here received plenty of river debris. But the real problem was the pier. Twenty-foot waves smashed away more than 20 pilings and 100 feet off the end of the pier, converting it in moments from a T-shaped to an L-shaped pier.

Consequently, cleanup started immediately.

"We didn't want big chunks of pier washing back out into the sea where it could be thrown back into the pier," said Port Hueneme Facilities Supervisor Denis Murrin.

Pilings and other large debris were hauled off by a hired contractor. City workers driving tractors cleaned up the smaller stuff. Though debris was substantial, city officials admit their job was easier than most because the city's beach is only half a mile long. Kim Cuilty, city landscape maintenance supervisor who oversaw the cleanup, estimated that city workers spent about 230 hours cleaning up the beach in preparation for Memorial Day weekend. Contrast that with 9,000 hours of effort along Ventura's beaches.

And they did a thorough job. The beaches here are now wide, clean and white, as nice as anything the county has to offer. The only reminder of the past winter's fury is the 100-foot section missing from the end of the pier.

This doesn't put off everyone.

On a recent brilliant blue day, a father and his pig-tailed, 4-year-old daughter peered over a wooden railing, gazing at the empty space once occupied by the southern extension of pier.

"Remember when it used to go out this way?" said the father.

The girl considered the ocean below, placid and green.

"I forget," she said.

Details

FYI: The city of Ventura is launching an "Adopt-a-Beach" program June 19. Businesses and residents who adopt a stretch of city beach for a year are responsible for one cleanup session every two months. Call 652-4555 for more information.

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