California's coastal counties must increase their testing for ocean pollution and probably will post more warning signs near contaminated waters under regulations given final approval this week.
The rules take effect nearly two years after the Legislature approved the plan that provides counties with uniform rules for measuring ocean water quality.
Environmentalists praised the long-delayed approval of the regulations, saying beachgoers will be able to make more informed decisions about when the ocean is too polluted for swimming.
"We are fortunate to have the strongest bathing water standards program in the nation," said Mark Gold, executive director of Santa Monica-based Heal the Bay.
Gold predicted that "you are going to see a hell of a lot more beaches posted now because of poor water quality. . . . The public will be able to see these signs and make the right decisions about what to do."
In the past, health officials in coastal counties made their own decisions about how to determine the safety of ocean waters. Some tested just once a month at a few locations. Others might sample only for one so-called "indicator" bacteria that proved to be an imprecise gauge of the health risk.
Under the regulations issued this week by the state office of administrative law, counties must take samples once a week at beaches visited by at least 50,000 people a year.
The regulations require sampling for a wider range of organisms, including the ubiquitous coliform bacteria that has previously been measured, but also enterococcus and fecal coliforms.
Scientists have determined that the presence of fecal coliforms and enterococcus and the ratio of those organisms to others is a better indicator of human health risks than a simple test for coliforms, an organism found in a huge array of plants and animals.
When any one of the bacteria reaches a certain level, signs must be posted warning ocean swimmers about the potential for illness, the regulations say. Each county will also be required to maintain a hotline to inform the public which beaches are contaminated or, in extreme cases, closed.
About $1 million has been allocated by the state to help counties pay for increased ocean sampling.
"This is the culmination of a multiyear effort to grant Californians the basic right to know the safety of the beaches they recreate at, whether in San Diego, Santa Barbara or Santa Cruz," said Assemblyman Howard Wayne (D-San Diego), who wrote the bathing water standard law.
The measurements attempt to focus on swimming spots contaminated with human waste. State officials decided to make such pollution the focus of their ocean testing because of a 1996 health study in Santa Monica Bay.
The study by a USC researcher surveyed thousands of ocean bathers and found that people swimming in water near storm drains polluted with human waste were almost 50% more likely to get colds, sore throats, diarrhea and other illnesses than those who swim in cleaner water.
Scientists have since spent considerable time attempting to track down the source of viruses associated with human waste. But public health officials agree that bathers can swim safely if they simply avoid the relatively small areas contaminated by storm drain runoff.
Los Angeles County health officials said the new regulations will not force them to increase sampling, but they do expect to post more beaches as contaminated.
Beaches inside harbors--such as Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro, Avalon Beach on Catalina Island and Mother's Beach in Marina del Rey--have been particularly plagued by high bacteria counts.
County health officials said they suspect those high readings are caused by the large number of birds that congregate at those beaches. Although research has not yet confirmed a connection between bird waste and human illness, those beaches will be posted as a precaution, said Jack Petralia, director of environmental protection for Los Angeles County.
Avalon Mayor Hugh T. "Bud" Smith said "we are all concerned" about the possibility that health warnings would be posted near the main pier in Avalon Bay. He said the resort town has already taken a number of steps to deter birds from landing on the pier and to divert storm drain flows away from the harbor.
"That's our bread and butter over here, the beaches," said Smith, who noted that the occasionally contaminated area is not near the main swimming beach. "We do everything we can to keep the beaches clean and to keep our bay clean."
Petralia said his office will try to develop a sign that acknowledges the pollution without closing beaches entirely. Petralia suggested the signs might say: "Warning: Bacterial counts exceed health standards."
In many cases, the public can move as little as 100 yards to other stretches of shoreline that are not contaminated, said Gold, who is an environmental scientist.
At San Pedro's Cabrillo Beach, for instance, bathers can choose between one of the most polluted swimming areas in Southern California and one that is typically much cleaner. The cleaner water is along the ocean front at Cabrillo, while the polluted water is in the calmer, protected area inside the Port of Los Angeles breakwater.
Officials in Orange and San Diego counties previously said they were concerned that the new regulations might lead to excessive warnings about ocean pollution. But they praised the regulations Wednesday.
"The tests give us some good, real-time information now and we can keep the public better informed," said Larry Honeybourne, chief of the Water Quality Section of the Orange County Health Care Agency. "It's very protective of public health."
The county increased its ocean sampling in March, in anticipation of the new regulations. The new standards for posting warnings went into effect this week and two small beaches inside Newport Harbor were marked Wednesday with warnings about high bacteria levels. Storm drains release at both beaches, on 38th and 43rd streets.
A San Diego official said Wednesday that the county is prepared to increase from monthly to weekly sampling and to increase the number of testing sites substantially.