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‘Summer of spills’ in 2021 messed up otherwise clean ocean in Southern California

Huge spills of raw sewage and oil marred an otherwise decent year for water quality at Southern California beaches, according to the 32nd annual Beach Report Card issued Wednesday, June 22, by the nonprofit Heal the Bay.

Luke Ginger, a water quality scientist at Santa Monica-based Heal the Bay and lead author of the report, said a series of infrastructure failures last year led to “a lot of pollution” in the ocean off Southern California. And in the report itself, Ginger wrote: “Decision-makers must step up and significantly invest in infrastructure in addition to holding polluters accountable.”

But Ginger and other water experts noted that the biggest incidents over the last year – a 13 million-gallon spill of sewage from the Hyperion Reclamation Plant in Los Angeles, a 7 million-gallon sewage spill in the Dominguez Channel, which flows into the ocean near Long Beach, and a 25,000-gallon oil spill near Huntington Beach – were one-time events that resulted in short-term damage.

When measuring the most common sources of ocean pollution – the untreated contaminants that routinely flow from drainage systems into the ocean – Southern California beaches fared pretty well.

“Those were isolated incidents that were harmful but temporary,” Ginger said, referencing what the report termed a “summer of spills” during a four-month window of 2021.

“When you look at the routine, dry-weather runoff issues, it wasn’t nearly as bad,” he added.

“The bottom line is that 94% of the beaches in California grade out as clean most of the time.”

The Heal the Bay report, which has expanded over the years, tracks water quality at 500 beaches in the state during three distinct periods, “Dry Summer” days from April 1 through Nov. 1, “Dry Winter” days from Nov. 2 through March 31, and “Wet Weather” days after storms.

During the 12 months that ended March 31, 94% of beaches tested in California received an A or B grade during Dry Summer days, which was about average when compared with recent years. The A and B grades fell to 88% during Dry Winter days, which was slightly below average for that time period, and to 66% during Wet Weather days, which was slightly above average when compared with similar storm periods in previous years.

That uptick in post-storm water quality was an unexpected benefit of the otherwise harmful drought. Last year, coastal counties in the state received 24% less rain than is normal, a factor that reduced the amount of pollution that flowed from the land into the ocean.

But in previous years the drought has added to ocean pollution, and experts say that’s likely to be true in the future as well. Wildfires – which are bigger and more frequent during drought – foul the ocean by generating clouds of pollutants that rise into the sky and eventually fall to the water’s surface.

“It’s definitely safe to say that drought leads to more wildfires, and more wildfires worsen water quality as well as air quality,” Ginger said.

The Heal the Bay report offered details about specific conditions in each of the state’s coastal counties.

In Los Angeles County, the report was mixed. Testing found that 90% of county beaches posted clean water on dry days, a situation the report described as “excellent.” But, after storms, testing showed clean water at only 43% of beaches in the county. The report also noted that in addition to the mega spills at Hyperion and the Dominguez Channel event, county beaches suffered from the effects of 87 smaller sewage spills.

The report was better in Orange County, where 99% of beaches tested clean on dry days and 66% were found to be clean after storms. The report said about 6,700 gallons of sewage was sent into the ocean off Orange County from 13 different sewage spills.

The report also listed six beaches in Los Angeles County and 19 beaches in Orange County on its “Honor Roll,” meaning the water graded out as clean virtually all year round in most conditions. Statewide, only about 10% (51) of all the beaches tested met that standard.

Conversely, the water at some beaches in Los Angeles and Orange counties was found to be dirtier.

The waters near the Santa Monica Pier and two stretches of Mother’s Beach in Marina del Rey (at the Lifeguard tower and in the area between the tower and a dock), were listed as “Beach Bummers” by Heal the Bay. In Orange County, Vaughn’s Launch in Newport Bay received the same designation.

But the problems at those beaches weren’t necessarily man-made, according to the report.

Seagulls and other birds contribute to fecal pollution in the water near the Santa Monica Pier, an issue that’s common near many piers in Southern California. And the water at the Marina del Rey beaches, and at Vaughn’s Launch, test poorly because those areas are enclosed, with poor circulation and limited exposure to the open ocean.

But individual beach grades, and the report overall, offer only a snapshot of overall ocean health, according to Ginger and other water scientists.

The data used in the report is based primarily on state-mandated testing conducted consistently over the course of a year. That means the vast majority of beaches in Southern California aren’t tested regularly enough to qualify for the Heal the Bay report.

The testing typically also looks only at pollutants connected to sewage, including bacteria and fecal matter, that can render swimmers and surfers susceptible to rashes and stomach ailments, among other health woes. Many of the pollutants that aren’t tracked – microplastics, viruses, chemicals, barrels of poisons – are known to be harmful to humans and in the ocean off Southern California.

“The thinking is that the testing looks for pollutants that could make a person sick fairly quickly … within a day or two of exposure,” Ginger said. “The other (pollutants) would require long-term exposure, or are in such low concentrations, that they don’t pose that kind of threat.”

Also, since 2015, the state-mandated testing has been conducted mostly at spots near where drains or creeks dump water from land into the ocean. Such tests are more likely to find higher amounts of pollutants than you’d find if you tested even 100 yards away.

Overall, water scientists suggest the water quality at beaches in Southern California has improved in recent decades, showing a slow but steady improvement that mirrors what was seen in the region’s air quality from the 1950s until the late 2010s.

“People are more aware of what they shouldn’t do, as far as putting stuff into storm drains or letting pollutants get directly into the ocean,” said Garry Brown, founder and president of Orange County Coastkeeper, which is part of a string of similarly named nonprofits that work to improve water throughout the state.

But just as air quality locally has shown signs of backsliding, Brown and others said long-term gains in water quality are threatened by population growth and global warming.

“We’re learning new things all the time about the ocean. And we’ve barely even defined ‘ocean acidification,’” Brown said.

“What we do know is that about 25% of the carbon that we generate is absorbed into the ocean.”

He and others noted that this year’s Heal the Bay report comes in advance of the 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act of 1972. That legislation – which drew enough bipartisan support in Congress to override a veto from President Richard Nixon – was aimed at returning all water in the United States to something close to its natural state. While that standard hasn’t been achieved, Brown and others suggest the law remains a powerful force in keeping the ocean clean enough for swimming and surfing.

“Coastal water has improved,” Brown said. “It’s been years of work, and it’s not perfect, but it’s improved.”

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