Health testing way down at California beaches

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Health testing of California’s beaches has slumped to its lowest level since ocean monitoring became law more than a decade ago, putting swimmers, surfers and divers at greater risk of exposure to contaminated water, a Times investigation has found.

Beaches from San Diego to the Bay Area are being tested less often and in fewer locations; some are going untested for months at a time. Statewide, the number of annual tests for bacteria has dropped by nearly half since 2005, according to a Times analysis of state records.

Beach closures and advisories have also fallen dramatically — in part because there’s less pollution, but also because health officials aren’t detecting the dirty water that remains.

At calm, sheltered Baby Beach in Dana Point, which attracts parents with young children but also traps contaminated runoff, health officials did not test for five months earlier this year.

In Long Beach, home to some of the most polluted ocean water in the state, 40% of beach sites are no longer being tested, city officials said. State records show that testing at Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro is down 80% and 65% in Santa Monica. At San Onofre State Beach at the northern edge of San Diego County, water at the legendary Trestles surf break was tested only four times last year, down from nearly 70 times in 2005.

The culprit is a familiar one: state and county budget cuts. In 2008, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed the $1 million the state had provided each year to test hundreds of beaches for bacteria. Since then, emergency bond funds and stimulus dollars have been tapped to keep the testing program afloat, but the money is expected to evaporate by year’s end.

Overall, water quality at the region’s beaches is almost certainly better than it was in the past, experts say. Tens of millions of dollars have been spent to divert and treat runoff and wastewater before it washes into the ocean. Drought conditions have also reduced the amount of runoff reaching the ocean.

Nonetheless, clean-water advocates say the cutbacks have put people at risk. Those who swim in contaminated water are exposed to gastrointestinal viruses and to pathogens that can cause skin rashes and ear, eye and staph infections. Swimmers are most likely to get sick in poor-circulating water near river mouths and sewer outfalls, especially after rain.

“Water quality absolutely has gotten better during the summer months,” said Mark Gold, president of Heal the Bay. “But the reality is that less frequent monitoring means there’s a much greater chance of someone swimming or surfing in polluted water unknowingly.”

Tourism officials have also expressed concern. They say the cost to monitor beaches is inconsequential compared with the estimated $12 billion in tourist-related revenue California beach towns generate each year.

“California’s coastline is one of our biggest assets as a travel destination,” said Kathryn Burnside, a spokeswoman for the California Travel and Tourism Commission. “What makes sense from a health perspective certainly makes sense for the tourism industry.”

Health and wastewater agencies responsible for beach testing defend the scaled-back monitoring as adequate. Some officials said the amount of testing has been underreported, while others acknowledged severe cutbacks.

Schwarzenegger’s office said the state has continued funding beach water monitoring at a 90% level despite budget difficulties.

“It is not immediately clear why the number of tests taken by counties have declined this much,” spokeswoman Rachel Arrezola said in a written statement. She said the Department of Public Health and the State Water Board are investigating the reason for the declines while they search for a permanent funding source for future testing.

Los Angeles County health officials said their own testing has remained constant and disputed the state’s records for the county’s coastline.

“We continue to do the tests weekly, and we’re not doing less sampling because we don’t have money,” said Alfonso Medina, director of the county’s Environmental Protection Bureau. However, other agencies that test some of the county’s beaches may have cut back.

Public health officials say they are unable to gauge if reduced testing has caused more swimmers to get sick. Cases are rarely reported because they mimic ailments such as food poisoning or stomach flu.

The number of beaches in California closed by health officials has fallen 74% since 2005, The Times found. Postings, which alert swimmers to contaminated water, dropped 44%. State and local officials do not know how much of that decline is attributable to cleaner water and how much to less testing. Many beachgoers, however, assume that the lack of signs means the water is clean.

“If there isn’t a sign posted, I kind of assume it’s safe,” said Susan Thomas, who takes her 16-month-old daughter, MaKenzie, to the beach every other weekend. “We’re obviously taking a risk going into the water anywhere along this coast, but when she swims, she goes under.”

The beach where Thomas spoke, Baby Beach in Dana Point, was busy on a balmy afternoon earlier this month. Dozens of children and their parents splashed in a shallow, roped-off swimming area as a lifeguard watched from a tower nearby.

Historically, the beach has been one of the region’s dirtiest, sliding by with C’s and D’s on Heal the Bay’s annual beach report card. And yet health monitoring at Baby Beach and 38 other beaches in Orange County — including Little Corona in Newport Beach and Main Beach in Laguna — shut down for five months during the winter for lack of funds.

California’s pioneering 1999 law requires health officials to test at least once a week during the long summer beach season. If a beach fails, lifeguards post signs alerting swimmers to the risk. Congress used the law as its national model, and many Southern California beaches expanded to year-round, almost daily testing earlier this decade.

But the California law has a loophole: Testing isn’t required if the program is not fully funded. Without money from Sacramento, health agencies can cut testing or choose not to report results without violating the law, something state officials suspect is contributing to the declining numbers.

In Ventura County, the loss of state funds meant that monitoring of its 42-mile coastline was halted for eight months in November 2008.

“Once the money went away, there was no mandate to sample, so we suspended sampling,” said program coordinator Richard Hauge.

In some coastal areas, nonprofits are taking up the slack as government agencies cut back.

When Santa Barbara County reduced funding for year-round beach testing two years ago, the nonprofit Santa Barbara Channelkeeper raised money to pay interns to collect the water samples at 16 beaches through the winter, when the bigger waves draw more surfers.

Other places, such as Orange County, are collaborating more with sanitation districts, which are required to test ocean water as part of their license to discharge wastewater from sewage treatment plants.

And in San Diego County, which had to drop its monitoring program for half a year last winter, health officials have begun more frequent testing at pollution-prone coastlines, such as Torrey Pines State Beach.

Even with those assists, however, there is less information available for surfers and swimmers like Barry Gardner, a ninth-grade health teacher from Yorba Linda who takes half a dozen surf camping trips a year.

He’s wary of spending too much time in dirty ocean water and avoids a section of Doheny State Beach known as “Dead Bird Cove” because of its supposed toxicity. But for the most part, he prefers to push his luck.

“If the surf is good, I’m going to go in the water,” he said. “But if you don’t know what’s in it, it’s tough.”

Times staff writer Doug Smith and data analyst Sandra Poindexter contributed to this report.