June 14, 2012
Summer is almost here, with news from the coastline: More than 80% of the county’s beaches are clean.
Or are they?
Chad Nelsen, environmental director of the San Clemente-based Surfrider Foundation, says he views beach grades and report cards as a rough-but-useful guide to a beach’s overall cleanliness and history. Beach grades aren’t same-day evaluations, he notes, and they don’t yet say enough about why a beach’s bacteria level may be elevated.
“Any given beach can be clean on any given day, but these kinds of report cards look at the average,” says Nelsen. “They can tell you if a beach is chronically polluted or typically clean.”
Beach grades are culled from ocean water samples collected from hundreds of coastal locations. In Los Angeles County, the Department of Public Health samples the water weekly at 40 sites between the Ventura County line and the Redondo Beach Pier, plus five sites between April and October at Avalon Beach on Catalina Island.
In addition, the department reviews monitoring results from scores of samples taken by the Los Angeles Bureau of Sanitation, the Hyperion water treatment plant and the Los Angeles County Sanitation District.
Those samples are tested for total coliform, fecal coliform, and enterococcus bacteria—so-called “indicator” bacteria that signal the presence of agents that can make swimmers sick. The results are compared to state water quality standards and updated each week by the Department of Public Health. Then they are turned into a rolling 30-day online “report card” that grades the water quality at each beach from A to F.
The test results also are shared with Heal the Bay, a nonprofit environmental watchdog group that analyzes water quality at hundreds of beaches along the West Coast and posts its own weekly beach-by-beach assessment, as well as a comprehensive annual report published in May.
Surfrider’s Nelsen compares beach grades to “a spelling class, with a bunch of weekly quizzes.”
“You might get an A or a B or even an F on a given week, but if the scores average out to an A at the end of the month or the end of the year, you’re probably doing pretty well.”
This year’s Heal the Bay report had mixed reviews for L.A. County: Some 82% of the county’s beaches had earned dry-weather grades of A or B last year, a 7-point improvement over the prior year. But the county was still below the statewide average, and trouble spots persisted in places like Avalon and Malibu.
The reasons for those scores tend to defy simplification.
Ken Murray, who directs the Department of Public Health’s Bureau of Environmental Protection, says the test results, and therefore the grades, are impacted by all sorts of factors—weather, water depth, whether the sample was taken near or far from the mouth of a storm drain, even the number of birds in the area.
Pollution control efforts inland can make a big difference. Malibu’s new Legacy Park, for example, is essentially a grassy, state-of-the-art system for capturing urban runoff. And Murray says a new rainwater harvesting system at Penmar Park in Venice “is really going to help the water quality in the beaches because runoff there is going to be captured and treated—and used to water the Penmar Park golf course—before it can hit the bay.”
Precipitation is also a major factor. A beach that is Grade A in dry weather can be rendered unfit overnight by a heavy rain and the ensuing runoff, and be perfectly swimmable again in less than a week as bad bacteria are dispersed by waves and killed by sunshine.
Long Beach, for instance, was a coastal success story this year, partly because of big projects upstream that diverted runoff, upgraded sewers and reduced the tons of debris that the Los Angeles River dumps out onto its beaches. But city officials noted that part of that sharp improvement—93 percent of the city’s beaches recorded A or B grades on the Heal the Bay scorecard—may also have simply stemmed from a relative lack of rain.
Avalon, meanwhile, has been a chronic low scorer and officials have spent years trying to pin down the reasons. “We had thought the problem was sewage lines around Avalon Harbor,” Murray says. “But they spent millions to repair that, and the bacteria levels are still high.”
More tests—these ones on boats—were similarly inconclusive. Now Avalon’s antiquated sewers are undergoing a new, multi-million-dollar round of repairs, and the city is under a cease-and-desist order from the state to clean up its water. Also, Murray says, a team of UC Irvine researchers is studying Avalon “to give us a new set of eyes.”
Amanda Griesbach, a Heal the Bay water quality scientist, says the science is evolving. Someday, she predicts, beachgoers will be able to tell the cleanliness of the water with a single, same-day dipstick test that will be posted at each beach and may even suggest a pollutant’s origin.
“When that happens—and that’s where the science is heading—it will be awesome,” says Griesbach. “But right now, the existing methods are the best we have.”
March 31, 2011
When the heavens open, as they did epically last month, the Los Angeles River becomes a roaring, churning testament to urban junk and waste.
With a collection area of nearly 900 square miles, it carries in its rain-swollen waters anything that can be chucked into flood-control channels or pushed down curbside catch basins—sofas, stereos, soccer balls, spray paint cans from taggers, whatever.
Then there’s the trash, layers of plastic bags and Styrofoam mixed with tangled vegetation mowed down by fast moving waters on the river’s channel bottom, where it’s been allowed to grow wild again.
At the end of this mucky 51-mile journey to the sea is Jared Deck of Los Angeles County’s Public Works Department. He oversees a multi-million dollar operation in Long Beach to corral all that junk in a boom unfurled across the river, just north of the Queen Mary and the harbor. Think of it as a goal line stand.
At first, it’s hard not to be caught off guard by Deck’s youthfulness in a bureaucracy in which some guys have been on the job longer than he’s been alive. But then you learn that the 26-year-old is a Hermosa Beach surfer with a unique feel for the value of his job—and those of his colleagues in the Flood Maintenance Division—every time he paddles into the water.
“It’s fulfilling,” Deck says. “My playground is the outdoors so I enjoy doing anything I can to make it better.”
In March, the stakes were historically high for him and the boom, which was first placed across the river 11 years ago as a pilot project. More dammed up debris—460 tons of it—was hauled out of the water than at any time before, tangible evidence of the severity of the March storms. The tonnage included full, uprooted trees. (See video below of the boom in action.)
To be sure, the county, along with its private and government partners, has worked hard to significantly reduce the amount of debris and pollutants flowing into the Los Angeles River from a watershed area of nine million people.
Among other things, county officials have installed 11,000 catch basin screens and other devices in unincorporated areas and have encouraged cities across the region to do the same. They’ve also launched ad campaigns to discourage dumping and educate the public about the relationship between the ocean and what they wash down their driveways.
Still, during the storm season between October and April, all bets are off. Those catch basin inserts, for example, are designed to unlock so greater loads can be accommodated and street flooding can be reduced. And, with as much as 330 million gallons a day flowing through the river, there’s little to do but wait for the debris to hit the boom.
Formerly called the Los Angeles River Trash and Debris Collection System, the boom is operated by a private contractor, Frey Environmental of Newport Beach. On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors renewed Frey’s contract for an annual sum of $795,000, with a 66-month maximum of about $4.4 million.
Since Frey first got the business in 2003, Dave Duncan has been there for the company as one its site operation managers. During the past eight years, he says he’s seen it all, including the sad discovery of a 35-year-old woman’s body. “I thought it was a mannequin,” he says.
Duncan says he understands why there’s so much old junk that ends up at the boom, where it’s lifted into dumpsters by cranes with “grab buckets.”
“If you’re on the low end of things, making $8 an hour and you don’t have money to go to the dump, what do you do? You throw it in the channel and hope for the best,” he says.
The experience and continuity that Duncan has brought to the operation gave a sense of confidence to Deck, who, in 2008, was assigned by the county to work directly with the contractor. “Whenever I’m on the site, Dave is always there,” says Deck, who was promoted last fall and now supervises the person who got his old job.
Deck grew up in central Maine—“in the middle of the woods”—and attended an engineering school in Worcester, Mass. Deck says he was quickly recruited by Los Angeles County before hiring freezes ended such efforts.
The recruiter, a Boston native, took him straight to the beach. “I was sold from there,” says Deck, who had learned to surf while studying abroad in Puerto Rico. An avid skier, too, he now lives in a Hermosa Beach apartment.
In his short number of years here, Deck says he’s had a great vantage point for seeing the success of efforts to keep the ocean cleaner by diverting runoff and trapping debris. “When I go surfing,” he says, “the water quality is significantly better…It’s great to see the system functioning and working.”
The boom in action
And here’s something you can do: Join the Friends of the Los Angeles River’s 22nd annual cleanup on Saturday, April 30th, from 9 a.m. to noon. The details are here.