They will always go back in the water

Ellen McCarty

About 100 local surfers banded together Sunday to protest ocean pollution

but, in the same stroke, said that no matter how polluted their aquatic

playground becomes, nothing will keep them on dry land for long. Not even

the threat of disease.

"We're not going to stay out of the water. If the waves are good, we'll

surf," said Keith Ashbury, a local surfer and editor of Five Star Surf, a

publication that organized Sunday's Broken Pipe Masters surf contest in

Huntington Beach. The contest's title referred to the potential for

broken sewage pipes as well as the Pipeline, a favorite surf spot in


During Labor Day weekend, when beaches reopened, Five Star Surf hired an

independent lab to test bacteria levels in Huntington Beach.

"We've been surfing in polluted water for years, and the issue keeps

getting swept under the rug," said Ashbury, who is also organizing a

letter-writing campaign.

Despite the unpredictable levels of bacteria, surfers are rarely scared

off by Hepatitis A, respiratory infections and diarrhea -- diseases

caused by high concentrations of bacteria -- especially when facing

6-foot barrels akin to the waves curling to shore on Sunday, Ashbury


The contest was held near the jetties at the Santa Ana River, a prime

source of urban runoff that travels, untreated, from inland storm drains

to the river and eventually the ocean. This summer's beach closures were

most likely caused by bacteria in urban runoff, said Larry Honeybourne,

who oversees water quality for the Orange County Health Care Agency.

"There's a bathtub effect in the Santa Ana River," said Jason Mitchell,

22, a surfer and member of the Surfrider Foundation. "The bacteria sits

in stagnant water and builds up until a storm comes and it overflows into

the ocean."

Not to say Sunday's water wasn't clean -- the surf was tested just before

the contest and proved to be up to standard. But just because it looks

clean doesn't mean it is, said Monica Mazur, an environmental health

specialist for the Orange County Health Care Agency.

"Water that looks dirty because it's filled with trash could actually be

clean bacteria-wise," she said. "Water that looks pristine could be

teeming with bacteria. Visual impressions mean nothing. You can't see


Although concerned about treating the ocean's bacteria, many young

surfers at Sunday's event ironically said they don't treat the bacteria

in their own bodies.

"Every time I surf, I get sick," said Nate Vandergast, 20. "Sometimes I

get head colds or have trouble breathing, but it goes away and I just

deal with it."

Diarrhea and swollen glands are also common symptoms, Ashbury said.

"It's not a good idea to have untreated bacteria infections," said Dr.

Nanette Mitchell at Fountain Valley Regional Medical Center, who has

treated a flux of surfers since this summer's beach closures. "The

bacteria can enter the blood stream and cause serious health problems."

All surfers suffering symptoms should be examined regularly and given

antibiotics if necessary, she said.

Don Slaven, a member of the executive committee for the Surfrider

Foundation, said public education is the first step to resolving bad

bacteria. "If we sent a man to the moon in 10 years, we can resolve this

problem, too."

Surfrider Foundation encourages all surfers to stay out of the water 72

hours after a rainstorm, when heavy concentrations of inland pollution,

including fertilizers, animal waste and chemicals flow into the ocean.

The foundation also is applying for federal grants for its Blue Water

Task Force, which would conduct its own testing of popular surf spots.

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