Catch a wave, and a bug


I told myself I had only come to look at the surf, but who was I kidding?

Powerful head-high waves reeled off the rock jetty that marks the northern end of Manhattan Beach’s El Porto surf break. A light but steady drizzle had fallen hours earlier; now an offshore breeze groomed the sea like corduroy. In my car, perched along the bluff, I gazed longingly at the half a dozen surfers circling in the lineup, all jockeying to latch onto a feathering wave.

Wave riders in L.A. welcome winter storms, which open a narrow window of good surf created by strong swells, favorable winds and new sandbars. But most of us also know that rainy weather can make us terribly sick.

A single storm can sweep billions of gallons of polluted runoff directly into Santa Monica Bay. Contact with this bacteria-laden storm water can lead to a variety of unpleasant ailments, from upper-respiratory infections to severe gastroenteritis.


As a staff member of Heal the Bay, I’ve spent a lot of time urging local beachgoers to stay out of the ocean for at least 72 hours after rainfall. I’m a big advocate of practicing what you preach, but the sight of those firing waves at El Porto on a recent Sunday morning stirred something feral in me.

Rationalizations raced through my mind: It hadn’t rained that hard; the water didn’t look that dirty. My professional judgment soon gave way to impulse. I began shimmying into a damp wetsuit. Just this once, I thought. How bad could it be? Thirty-six hours later, I found out.

For two days, I alternated between fitful sleep and humbling trips to the bathroom. My family and co-workers didn’t offer much sympathy. What had I been thinking, they demanded, surfing in Santa Monica Bay right after a major rainstorm? Delivering crackers and ginger ale to my bedside, my teenage son mocked me: “Just where do you work again?”

Even if you’re not a surfer, you have reason to be concerned about polluted storm water. Rimmed by foothills and mountains, Los Angeles County is like a giant bowl tilted toward the sea. When it rains, water rushes along paved streets, picking up trash, fertilizer, pet waste and automotive fluids before heading to the ocean via the region’s extensive storm drain system. A single typical day of rainfall spews an estimated 10 billion gallons of runoff into Santa Monica Bay, untreated and unchecked. That’s the equivalent of roughly 100 Rose Bowl stadiums’worth of dirty water. It’s little wonder the county claims seven of the 10 most polluted beaches in the state.

This is not simply a public health issue; it’s also a huge waste of a precious resource. Los Angeles imports costly and increasingly scarce water from Northern California and the Colorado River. Storm water — if held, filtered and cleansed naturally in groundwater basins — could provide a safe, more secure and less costly source of drinking water.

The county now has a chance to address the problem. This month, notices have gone out to county property owners about a proposed storm water fee. Most single-family residential parcels would be assessed $54 per year, and the money — about $270 million annually — would be used for innovative infrastructure projects to capture and reuse storm water. On Jan. 15, the county Board of Supervisors will hold a hearing on the issue, after which an election by mail is likely.


Some opponents are already crying about hidden taxes, but this measure is more rightly viewed as a sound economic investment. Funds raised will enable municipalities to develop multi-benefit wetlands, parks and open spaces that can recharge groundwater supplies, saving money in the long run. Thousands of local jobs in the construction, engineering and landscaping industries will be created. Reclaimed storm water will irrigate neighborhood parks, ball fields and school grounds instead of fouling rivers and beaches.

An advisory committee of property owners and members of the public, appointed by the supervisors, would approve project plans and oversee the funds. Fees could not be raised nor diverted to any other use.

Surfers like me often do dumb things. But Los Angeles County can be smart about storm water. Let’s stop pouring money, and bacteria, down the drain.

Matthew King is communications director for Heal the Bay.