The rains that drenched Southern California in recent weeks have sent tons of trash down storm drains, creeks and rivers, littering beaches with patio furniture, refrigerators and even cars -- an urban deposit not seen since the El Nino storms five years ago.
As seashores from San Clemente to Ventura became a dumping ground for debris that had been abandoned in creekbeds and wedged in storm drains, city and county crews revved up for a thorough cleanup.
"I've got the 14th hole sign from ... Green River," said Newport Beach General Services Director David Neiderhaus, referring to a golf course more than two dozen miles upriver that straddles Orange and San Bernardino counties.
In Newport, graders and motorized beach cleaners have been kept busy trying to keep pace with the storms. An estimated 400 tons of waste, including Styrofoam cups, plastic chairs and tree trunks, have been hauled off.
Even a few rattlesnakes were washed down from the hills, public works officials said.
Though the first significant storm arrived in mid-November, those rains provided only an initial flushing of city streets, pushing light plastic cups, straws and oil containers downstream to the ocean.
With the recent storms and possibly more on the way, public works officials are girding for another wave of plastic trash and an increase in organic waste such as bamboo, tree trunks and tree limbs.
"Unfortunately a lot of this stuff is getting flushed out now," said Wayne Schumaker of the Los Angeles County Department of Beaches and Harbors.
After the recent storms, Schumaker said, his department has cleaned about 75 to 100 tons of debris from the beaches. County crews work seven days a week removing litter from 220 storm drains and nine creek beds from San Pedro to Ventura, he said.
In Ventura County, trash and other debris from recent rains have floated down the Ventura and Santa Clara rivers but only in moderate amounts so far and nowhere near the record levels during the last El Nino, said Steve Capps, assistant deputy director for the state parks department. An estimated 80% of the county's shoreline is managed by the state, he said.
Newport Beach is unique among the state's coastal cities. Its northern boundary is the mouth of the potentially powerful Santa Ana River, which drains a 2,450-square-mile swath of northern and central Orange County, southwestern San Bernardino County and western Riverside County.
It's estimated that 80% of the trash washed down the Santa Ana River by winter rains floats out to sea and eventually drifts south, fouling beaches along a six-mile stretch of coast lined with million-dollar homes, city maintenance officials said.
"Unfortunately, the storms from the north drive the debris onto our beaches," said Rick Greaney, Newport's beach maintenance superintendent. "We'll be cleaning up the trash for the next three weeks getting our beaches ready for Easter."
Trash floating downstream is always an environmental concern for the Los Angeles River and Ballona Creek near Marina del Rey. Surfrider Beach in Malibu is often fouled by runoff from Malibu Creek.
By contrast, Huntington Beach, just north of the Santa Ana River mouth, doesn't get hit as hard, said Larry Neishi, Huntington Beach maintenance official. The city removed an estimated 18 to 30 tons of debris last week, he said.
If there is an axiom in beach maintenance, it's "stay on top of it," said Tom Anderson, beach maintenance supervisor for Newport Beach.