Surf’s Up and So Is the Level of Bacteria


If surfing were a religion, which it virtually is along much of the California coast, this rocky little nub 15 miles north of Ventura would be sacred shore.

Winter swells peel around the point, grow into thunderous barrel rolls and launch board riders on runs so long and smooth that they become the stuff of surfing legend.

“Rincon’s a killer. . . .You can surf anything from a body board to a barn door out here,” said Peter Berkey of Montecito, a surfer who pulled off U.S. 101 recently to inspect the waves.

But this year, swimmers and surfers are staying away because a virulent brew of microbes is lurking inside the tubular breakers.

Health officials have closed Rincon Point, or posted health advisories, every day except four since Jan. 1. The beach immortalized by the Beach Boys song “Surfin’ Safari” and known to surfers around the world as the Queen of the Coast, now ranks as one of the most polluted stretches of shoreline in Southern California.


The discovery demonstrates that even far-flung parts of the California coast are no longer safe from pollution long identified only with urban areas. The problem underscores the difficulty of making the nation’s waters fit for swimming 26 years after passage of the Clean Water Act.

The exact origin of the contamination at Rincon Point is a mystery, although farms, septic tanks, horse corrals and orchards are suspected.

Whatever the cause, more pollution hot spots such as Rincon are bound to surface as new state laws requiring more rigorous ocean water quality testing take effect in April.

“We’re going to see a huge rise in beach closures. If people are checking the water more frequently, they are going to find more pollution,” said Catherine Kuhlman, associate director of the water division at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s California office.

For surfers, dirty ocean water is totally bogus. This type of pollution is a direct threat to their sport. The problem at Rincon has surfers in an uproar, health officials worried and politicians scrambling for solutions.

“Rincon is a world-class surf spot. It’s a place that should not be desecrated,” said Bruce MacDonald of the Surfrider Foundation U.S.A. “If we don’t do something about Rincon, what will we do with the rest of the beaches?”

Rincon Point, and the two beaches that flank it on the boundary line between Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, is a place of tranquillity and natural beauty. Sand gives way to a jumble of rock-tumbled stones and barkless driftwood. Shorebirds skitter on wet sand and pelicans skim the ocean surface. The only intrusion of the outside world is a sign warning “Nudity Prohibited.”

The danger may arise in the Santa Ynez Mountains, which tower above the beach. Rincon Creek, once relied upon by Chumash Indians and Spanish explorers for its year-round flows, now collects runoff from lemon orchards, horse corrals, avocado groves, cattle-grazing areas and houses on its way to the ocean.

Gerry Winant of the Santa Barbara County ocean water monitoring program wades into the surf off Rincon each Monday and scoops up a water sample at the mouth of the creek. When the sample is analyzed, a shocking image emerges.

Some of the samples contain off-the-chart bacteria loads. Three times this year Winant’s instruments have measured 30,000 coliform organisms--the maximum their equipment measures. The health standard for coliform, an indicator of fecal material, at which water is considered contaminated is 10,000.

Excessive bacteria are the most common form of beach water pollution. Last year, 5,199 beaches were closed or health advisories were issued in the United States. About 69% of the time excessive bacteria were to blame, according to data released by the environmental advocacy group Natural Resources Defense Council and endorsed by the EPA.

Storm water drains, including creeks, streams and flood control channels, are big polluters in rural areas. While laws have been passed to force factories and sewage treatment plants to clean up, there are no requirements to clean storm water drains in places like Rincon Point. A 1996 USC study of 15,492 swimmers at Santa Monica Bay found bathers at storm drains got sick 57% more often than people swimming only 400 yards away.

Sicknesses caused by exposure to the microbes have flu-like symptoms, including fevers, severe stomachaches, vomiting, respiratory illness and ear, nose and throat problems. Some of the bacteria cause hepatitis and dysentery.

“It’s shocking to people how much bacteria is in the water at beaches near places where there’s storm water runoff, say a creek or rivers or storm drain,” said Mark Pumford, environmental specialist for the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, which has jurisdiction over water quality in Ventura County.

The risks are not trivial. The odds of getting sick from ingesting polluted beach water are about 2 or 3 in 100, health studies show, which is considered a high environmental risk. Dangers are greater for children, whose immune systems are still developing.

“You have to be real careful when you’re in the water,” said Berkey, the Rincon surfer. “You don’t want to swallow any water. It’s really sad what’s happened to this place.”

Bill Stratton of Faria Beach, a few miles south of Rincon, has been swimming in the waters off northern Ventura County for 32 years. He recently spent three months in the hospital, where a mysterious illness caused convulsions, infected his lungs and raised an abscess on his spine.

“I thought I had an iron-clad immune system because I was seeing all these guys [surfing] around me getting sick and I was never sick,” Stratton said. “I can’t prove absolutely it was the ocean, but it [illness] sure came quick after a swim. Rather than being the origin of life, the ocean is becoming the origin of disease.”

Reports like that, which abound in the surfing community, have spurred Sacramento and local governments to action.

The Ventura County Board of Supervisors last month decided to begin testing ocean water Nov. 1. Ventura County has been the only county in Southern California without such a program. The action was prompted by a new state law requiring routine testing.

Santa Barbara and Ventura counties are also poised to launch a joint study to pinpoint the origin of pollution at Rincon. Santa Barbara County has agreed to cover half the cost of the $25,000 study and the Ventura County supervisors will agree to cover the remainder at its Oct. 13 meeting, said Supervisor Kathy Long, whose district includes Rincon Point.

“It’s something we haven’t paid close enough attention to and now we intend to,” Long said.

Topping the list of contamination suspects are 72 homes plopped right on the shore in the exclusive Rincon Point gated community. Kevin Costner and other celebrities have homes there. The houses rely on septic tanks.

Judith Meyer, a Rincon Point resident and microbiology professor at Santa Barbara City College, knew something was amiss at the beach by her home. Her son frequently became ill after he surfed. So she began testing the waters for a classroom project. The results stunned her.

“Nobody wanted to admit we had a problem. They didn’t want it to get out of the gate,” Meyer said.

Linking the homes to a sewer system would be costly. The nearest connection on the Ventura County side of Rincon Creek is three miles away. On the Santa Barbara County side, the nearest link is farther away and uphill, which makes for a more costly connection.

And it is not clear whether Rincon Point septic tanks are responsible for all the pollution. Tests to quickly assess their impact on water quality are available, including harmless dyes poured into the tanks and DNA screening, but they have not yet been done.

Dr. Robert Levin, Ventura County’s health officer, doubts beachfront homes are completely to blame. He said the worst pollution shows up every 30 days or so, suggesting tides or dumping into Rincon Creek plays a role.

“While a lot of people assume septic systems are responsible for the problem, I think it’s premature to say that. I don’t think the solution to the problem is going to be that simple,” Levin said.

The upcoming study will allow health officials to pinpoint the source or sources of the pollution, from the beach, up the creek and nearly to the top of 2,000-foot peaks above Rincon Point.

It is an enormous undertaking, one of several underway in both counties to track so-called non-point pollution fouling beaches. Illustrating the problem, Rincon Creek drains 9,300 acres of rugged canyons flanking California 150.

Each potential source within the area must be scrutinized before a solution can be developed, explained Dan Reid, technical services supervisor for the Santa Barbara County health care services department.

“If it’s a factory or storm drain on the beach you can at least see it and identify it and see what’s coming out of the pipe,” said Sarah Chasis, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “With runoff it’s more insidious and hard to identify. The pollution is very diffuse and it’s hard to determine who is culpable.”

Time is growing short this year to go after pollution at Rincon. Officials say they must begin their investigation in the next two weeks before storms arrive. To find out how much pollution all the different sources contribute to the creek, investigators need to first understand what is in the water during low-flow conditions, and they have to discern that before storms wash lots of junk in the creek, an event called “the first flush.”

“That would be the most runoff of the season, when all the bacteria and things that would have been sitting around are flushed into the stream and flow to the ocean. It’s a worst-case scenario and if we miss that we’ve got to wait another year” to begin the water quality study, Reid said.