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Avalon's dirty little secret: its beach is health hazard

By the hundreds of thousands each year, they sail to Avalon by ferry and cruise ship for diving trips, glass-bottom boat tours and to lounge on the beach in the Catalina Island town 26 miles off the Southern California coast.

Yet the same crystal-clear water that draws tourists also harbors an embarrassing hazard. For most of the last decade, Avalon Harbor Beach has ranked among the most polluted in the state, tainted with human sewage that puts swimmers at risk.

Even though the city of 4,000 has spent $3.5 million testing and rehabilitating sewer lines, the water is no cleaner. A report last month by the Natural Resources Defense Council listed Avalon as one of the 10 most chronically polluted beaches in the nation for failing state health tests as much as 73% of the time.

Researchers years ago zeroed in on the cause: the city's rickety sewer system, made of century-old clay and metal pipes. Because half the lines are flushed with corrosive salt water, some have deteriorated so much they have simply vanished. So human waste flows unchecked into the earth, trickling into the city's groundwater and filtering through the sand into Avalon Bay.

The beach fails state health standards so often that warning signs are posted much of the summer and beachgoers sometimes use them to hang their towels out to dry. The advisories are meant to protect swimmers from pathogens that can cause stomach illnesses, rashes and ear, eye and staph infections, but many go in the water anyway.

The warnings didn't prevent biologists Stephen and Josie Bennett, who got married on Catalina, from going back for their recent one-year anniversary to go hiking and snorkeling in waters that, to Josie Bennett, look "pristine compared to what we're used to in Long Beach."

"You come here and you expect the best: The food is wonderful, the accommodations are great," she said, sitting on a bench overlooking the city's main beach and waterfront. "So you don't expect to be swimming in something that's unhealthy."

Indeed, calling attention to tainted beach water is discouraged in a town where tourism brings in $100 million a year.

"It's like using the S-word: Shark," said Wayne Griffin, president and chief executive of the Catalina Island Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Bureau. "Those things bring up emotions in people."

Dirty water "has to be damaging" the island economically, said Mayor Bob Kennedy, who suspects it's one of the reasons tourism has been on a slide for a decade.

Like many others in town, Kennedy is connected to the water and those who play in it. He owns a dive shop, swims in Avalon Bay almost every day and operates the new Sea Trek attraction, an underwater walking tour at Descanso Beach, a cleaner stretch of coast outside the bay.

"We're a small community, and here we are spending millions of dollars hoping that we wake up in the morning and everything will be fine," Kennedy said. "Well guess what: It hasn't."

Water quality advocacy groups say Avalon has neglected a glaring public health problem and contend that the only way the city can cure its beach water ills for good is to rebuild its entire 11-mile sewer system, a project that would probably cost tens of millions of dollars. They question the city's ability to solve the problem on its own and say officials long ago should have sought assistance from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works or the state or federal government.

This summer, the city is forging ahead with its own plan: a $5.1-million project to clean, repair and replace miles of sewer lines and make improvements at its sewer plant, its biggest investment yet.

"We haven't ignored the problem, but we haven't solved the problem," said Charlie Wagner, Avalon's chief administrative officer. "And now we're taking a landmark step forward."

But there are serious doubts whether that will be enough.

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Avalon's water woes surfaced in 1999, when a new state law required weekly health testing of California beaches from April to October.

Faced with poor results, city officials at first suspected boaters who drop anchor in the marina. That was ruled out because of the city's strict dye tablet program that banishes any boater who releases sewage into the harbor.

Next, they pointed the finger at seabird droppings fouling the water, an idea underscored by a limited city-commissioned study that found no evidence of human waste. For a time, visitors getting off the ferry were handed a pamphlet from the island Chamber of Commerce blaming the pollution on "large populations of birds."

"The city's sewer mains have been checked," it read. "No leaks can be found — anywhere!"

But as early as 2003, scientists found human-specific viruses — tell-tale signs of sewage pollution — in both the beach water and the groundwater close to shore.

In the years that followed, it became increasingly evident to university researchers that human sewage was leaking into the city's groundwater and straining through the sand into ankle-depth water along the beach.

"There's no doubt in my mind that human sewage is the main source of their problem," said Stanford University environmental engineering professor Alexandria Boehm, who has researched Avalon's water quality for nearly a decade. "And it's really rare to have a scientist say that."

The city in recent years has spent millions trying to fix the problem, but those efforts too have drawn scrutiny.

The State Water Board last year questioned Avalon's work on a grant it received to conduct studies and make sewer repairs to clean up its beach water. The state agency was about to terminate the $1.3-million agreement last year when the city hired a firm to certify that the work had been completed.

In February, water regulators cited the city for letting tens of thousands of gallons of sewage reach the ocean in six spills since 2005. They also pointed out poor record-keeping and management lapses at its sewer plant.

Those practices have since been corrected, city officials said, and United Water, the firm that had managed the city's sewer system for two decades, has been replaced.

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On a summer afternoon, it's hard to find a patch of sand on Avalon's main beach not packed with visitors, who splash in the calm, clear surf around the Green Pleasure Pier and sunbathe in view of the picturesque Casino building.

The often-present health warning signs don't deter Travis Peterson, 35, who swims at the beach on family vacations from Santa Ana and lets his 6-year-old daughter go underwater as long as she showers off afterward.

As a boy, Peterson used to get ear infections after swimming in Avalon, but these days, he said, "I just don't put my head underwater — I try, at least."

The Santa Catalina Island Co., which owns 10% of the island, has spent $12 million in the last few years revamping hotels and adding attractions, including a zipline tour and the mayor's underwater tour, in an attempt to bring back tourists.

But business leaders know the polluted water remains a strike against Avalon.

"Would we like to see the bay cleaned up? Absolutely," said Griffin, the Chamber head. "It's at the top of our list."

Critics are encouraged to see Avalon making its water pollution a higher priority. But they say the problem continues to be played down and gets little scrutiny by health officials because it's far from the mainland.

"It's a small city with a big problem," said Mark Gold, president of the environmental group Heal the Bay. "They're worried that if the word gets out on pollution in a big way, it might impact their tourism economy."

That was the experience of Angie Bera, a former Santa Monica Baykeeper biologist who moved to Avalon in 2006 to start a sailboat charter business and store. She started working for the city on its water quality problem, drafting talking points for the press and writing grants for funds to fix the city's sewer system.

At first she was optimistic, but after a few years, she began to feel the city was not acting urgently enough.

"You can't put off fixing something that is the whole reason you're a tourist destination," she said. "I moved to the island because of the water."

Last summer Bera, who has since moved off the island, wrote an article in the Catalina Islander saying that Heal the Bay's ranking of Avalon Harbor as the dirtiest beach in the state a "reality check." The reaction was swift.

Some on the island said they would boycott Bera's business. The Chamber president canceled his subscription and denounced the negative publicity in a newsletter to island businesses.

"I'm not suggesting that we attempt to cover things up or ignore problems," Griffin wrote. "But we don't have to go out of our way to publicize them."

Civic and business leaders are putting their hopes in the new $5.1-million sewer project. But some, including the mayor and Chamber president, still question the accuracy of the standardized health tests and continue to blame the birds.

And city officials admit the sewer project isn't likely to be a silver bullet.

"I can't tell you 100% that when we do all this, that there's never going to be a failing grade again," Wagner said. "But we have to do that before I can say we've done all we can."

Even if the entire system were replaced, sewage has accumulated below the town for so long that researchers don't believe the beach would show improvement for several years.

tony.barboza@latimes.com

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