Testing the Waters, Measuring Resolve

Kevin C. Buddhu lives in Ojai, teaches English at Camarillo High School and is a member of the Surfrider Foundation

Invisible to the naked eye, pathogens swirl in our ocean's near-shore waters. Until next month, when the Ventura County Department of Environmental Health starts to test water and post beaches found to be polluted, the only measure of these disease-causing bacteria is the misery experienced by ocean-goers suffering the cramping discomfort of intestinal distress, the itching burn of skin rashes and the searing pain of sinus, ear and lung infections.

Since the advent of Proposition 13, surfers and swimmers entering the ocean along Ventura County did so unknowingly (unless they read the Blue Water Task Force results put together by the Surfrider Foundation), never knowing for certain whether the water carried microorganisms in high enough concentrations to make contact unsafe by Environmental Protection Agency and Health Department standards.

Those of us who surf roiled at the notion that Environmental Health inspected restaurants and swimming pools for cleanliness but ignored potential hazards in the ocean. As a result, Ventura County beaches have been closed only when sewage spills soiled the coast or oil blackened the sand.

No longer.

In a unanimous decision last week, the county Board of Supervisors approved a budgetary proposal that allows Environmental Health to take weekly water samples at beaches and close them if bacteria levels exceed state-defined health standards. Details of the program--how many sites, what types of testing, how long beaches would remain closed--are yet to be determined.

As crucial as the details will prove, and as vital as this information is to all of us who enjoy the ocean, documenting pollution levels is just the first step. Once the county quantifies water contamination, it must find and correct the problems.

The federal EPA, the state Resources Agency and, to its credit, the Ventura County Board of Supervisors recognize that poor results of ocean water testing are just a symptom of the disease known as pollution. To unravel the tangle of problems that contributes to ocean pollution, the state report, "California's Ocean Resources: An Agenda for the Future," challenges local authorities to take several actions:

* Work with state and federal agencies to invoke provisions of the Clean Water Act and Coastal Zone Act. This will take an organized plan and open lines of communication among various parts of government--hardly commonplace but necessary.

* Pursue technical and financial aid from the federal government. Environmental Health has refused to test water, citing a lack of funds. Yet grants exist, and a long-term commitment to solving water-quality issues will require grant writing.

* "Inventory existing water quality monitoring efforts and use this information to develop a comprehensive monitoring program for coastal streams, bays, estuaries and near-shore waters." This is likely the most difficult step--and most important.

When the county supervisors voted to approve a program to routinely test the water and warn beach goers of pollution hazards, they started a process that will take many years and untold amounts of work to complete. Passing a funding resolution pales when compared to the leadership needed to see the measures described above come to fruition. Geoff Grubbs, the head of the EPA's water division, told me that, "75% of non-point-source pollution comes from agriculture runoff. A total of 40% of water pollution in rivers and streams comes from non-point sources," meaning sources less concentrated than easily identifiable drain pipes, factories or sewer plants.

The question remains for Ventura County: Will our elected leaders have the fiber to tackle the sources of pollution that they will likely unearth? Or will this county slide back into its position of being the only county in Southern California that doesn't test?

For the sake of my children's children, I hope these next years differ vastly from the previous 20. If not, this will long be remembered as a pivotal moment squandered through lack of courage and foresight.

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