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‘Baby Beach’ Still Plagued by Bacteria

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If the mystery isn’t solved soon, Dana Point’s popular “Baby Beach” could be renamed “Bird Beach,” or “Bacteria Beach,” or something even uglier.

Six months after the discovery of high bacteria counts in the shallow offshore waters forced a quarantine on the small beach, county officials remain baffled about the source of the problem. An exhaustive series of tests has not ferreted out any one culprit.

In recent weeks, however, officials have concluded that the high bacteria count reflects an accumulation of contaminants from several sources that are fouling the waters.

“Baby Beach is a microcosm of any large coastal area where you have urban runoff,” said Larry Paul, manager of the county’s coastal facilities, noting that storm drains feed runoff from the bluffs of Dana Point into the water at both ends of the 150-yard beach.

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“We have storm runoff, bird droppings, we have an aggregation of a bunch of little things. . . . They are all incremental on their own, but when you put them together you have a problem,” Paul said.

The goal is to get the beach cleaned up and open by summertime, when it is used by large crowds made up predominantly of parents and children.

Because the beach is tucked into the northwest corner of the harbor and is protected from waves by the breakwaters, it is considered a safe spot for toddlers too young to swim.

Part of the planned cleanup effort entails educating the public that everyone is part of the coastal contamination problem, said Larry W. Honeybourne, chief of the Health Care Agency’s water quality section.

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“The ocean begins at your front door,” Honeybourne said. “If you hose off your dog, or your car, it all ends up at the beach.”

Since Baby Beach was closed Aug. 7, the county’s investigation has closed the nearby public bathrooms, sent video cameras along the underground storm drains and sewer lines around the harbor, checked the bilge pumps of the nearby tall ship Pilgrim, stopped irrigating and fertilizing the lawns in the adjacent park, and tested the waters off the harbor restaurants.

An old septic tank beneath a 41-year-old bathroom at the base of the bluff was even dug up, but wasn’t found to be leaking. What’s more, nowhere in the harbor area have investigators found a problem similar to the one at Baby Beach, which, in the nearly 30 years of its existence, had never been closed previously because of contaminants, Paul said.

“It’s been a very, very highly technical investigation of every single source,” Paul said. “We are baffled, but we think we now have a handle on it.”

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Paul said the next phase will involve what is known as a “non-point source program” that measures contaminants at a variety of potential problem areas. The plan includes turning off the park irrigation system to eliminate runoff and installing 16 monitoring wells at the base of the bluff to check the quality of the underground water in the area.

It also includes doing something about the hundreds of birds--mostly pigeons--that frequent the parking lot near the beach and the pier. Officials will be placing netting underneath the pier to discourage the birds from roosting in the area, Paul said.

A similar problem at a place nicknamed Mothers’ Beach in Marina del Rey in Los Angeles County was solved by putting a net over the area to obstruct the birds’ flying patterns, Honeybourne said.

“The pigeons like to stay here and people like to feed them. They are definitely part of the problem,” Paul said.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Beach Blanketed with Bacteria

A combination of storm drain outlets, pigeon droppings and poor water circulation may be causing contamination of Dana Point’s Baby Beach. The beach, popular for parents with toddlers because of its sheltered location, has been closed since August because of high bacteria levels. Hoping to find a definite answer, the county will place 16 monitoring wells to probe for the source of contamination. A closer look:

1. Storm drain outlets empty out to each end of beach

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2. Pigeons congregate; excrement flows into harbor

3. Wind, current and tide create eddy; swirl holds bacteria in area

Baby Beach

Monitoring wells

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Storm drain outlets

High bacteria seeps

Swim area

Low tide line

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Seeping Concern

A high bacteria level is defined as a sample of water containing more than 1,000 coliform organisms per 100 milliliters. Higher levels have been recorded where bacteria seeps up from ocean floor during low tide. Bacteria levels for Baby Beach swim area:

1996

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Dec. 3: 2,400

1997

Jan. 8*: 900

Jan. 9: 5,000

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Jan. 21: 3,000

Jan. 22*: 500

Jan. 23: 2,400

* Rain recorded during or before sampling of water

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Source: Orange County Health Care Agency, Environmental Health Division

Researched by APRIL JACKSON / Los Angeles Times


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