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Heal the Bay Blog

Author: Matt King

Heal the Bay scientist Ryan Searcy explains why you may see people on the shore donating their body to science.

Heal the Bay knows a thing or two about water quality. We’ve provided water-quality tools to millions of California beachgoers, helping them make decisions about which beaches are safe to visit. The most important monitoring methods we have are those that determine the levels of so-called fecal-indicator bacteria, or FIB, at a given beach.

The NowCast system (in its 4th year) and the Beach Report Card (in its 29th year) provide a daily and long-term look, respectively, at FIB at California’s most popular beaches. FIB are linked to the presence of fecal-borne pathogens like Cryptosporidium and norovirus, and high levels of FIB are correlated with illnesses like skin rashes, ear infections, and gastroenteritis. So knowing how much FIB is present at your beach can help you stay healthy.

However, FIB are not always indicative of every human pathogen under the sun. For example, the presence of Staphylococcus aureus is not associated with FIB levels, and you can still catch a nasty staph infection on days where FIB levels are low. Staph gets into the ocean through stormwater runoff discharges from wastewater treatment facilities, and even human shedding at beaches.

A 2012 study of some Southern Californian beaches showed staph was present in 59% of seawater samples. Contracting staph can lead to severe skin and soft tissue infections, sepsis and hospitalization, and even death. And to make things worse, the authors of the study also found strains of staph that are resistant to antibiotic treatment (called methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA) in some of their samples.

If you are sufficiently freaked out by all this, I do have some good news.

Heal the Bay is partnering with a team of UCLA scientists, Surfrider Foundation, and USC Sea Grant to collect data on MRSA and how it affects those who frequent the ocean.

Megyn Rugh, a UCLA Ph.D. student who is leading this project, hopes to determine the ocean’s role in transmitting superbugs to humans.  It has been documented that antibiotic-resistant pathogens are frequently harbored by those who work in the meat processing industry or in hospitals. But Megyn suspects that they are also often present in frequent ocean-users, namely surfers.

Her past work has shown that there is MRSA present in the water at some of the region’s most popular surf spots. By collecting nasal swabs of surfers who paddle out at breaks in the Santa Monica Bay, Megyn hopes to prove that those with high environmental exposure to MRSA are more likely to harbor it in their bodies.

How is Megyn collecting this data, you might wonder? Well, here is a PSA on behalf of the Surfer Resistance Study:

From now through the end of the winter, Megyn and her team will be collecting samples at El Porto in Manhattan Beach every Tuesday and the Breakwater at Venice Beach every Wednesday.

If you’re heading out for dawn patrol, stop by her makeshift beach lab and get your nose swabbed. And if you’re not a surfer, for science’s sake you can still help! Megyn is taking swabs of non-oceangoers’ noses as a control, so stop by when you’re out running or walking your dog. (She’s pictured in the photo at top.)

Heal the Bay has worked hard for many years to prevent MRSA and other superbugs from getting into our coastal waters in the first place.

We know that normal staph in seawater can evolve into MRSA through transfer of antibiotic-resistant genes that come from elevated levels of pharmaceuticals in ocean water. (And you thought Halloween was over.) In 2016, the County of LA failed to enact measures that would hold suppliers of these drugs responsible for taking back unused prescriptions so that they don’t end up in the water.

If UCLA’s study can show that surfers are more likely to get sick from MRSA they contract in the water, advocacy groups like Heal the Bay will have ammunition to get polices in place that improve water quality.

Until then, our advice (as always) is to stay out of the ocean for at least 3 days after a heavy rainfall, and to avoid swimming and surfing near stormdrain outlets.

If you are interested in learning more, or supporting this project with a donation, contact Megyn Rugh at megynrugh@ucla.edu



All political ads and posts are paid for by Heal the Bay and L.A. Waterkeeper.

Environmental groups face two challenges getting attention during election season – limited funds and limited attention spans.

It hasn’t been easy rallying the electorate for Measure W, the countywide initiative to raise $300 million for increased stormwater capture in greater L.A. Voters will decide on the measure on Tuesday.

Building a lattice of nature-based facilities across the Southland could reap billions of gallons of runoff for reuse each year. Engineers think they can harvest enough runoff to meet the water needs of 2.5 million Angelenos. That’s about a quarter of L.A. County’s population.

It’s a critical first step in ditching our outdated Mulholland-era system of water management, in which we import 70% of our water and then send much of it uselessly to the sea each day.

But let’s face it, most voters tune out when you mention the word stormwater. Infrastructure isn’t sexy.

And Heal the Bay can’t compete with industry lobbyists who spend millions to jam airwaves with ads for narrowly focused initiatives. (Is paying for dialysis really the most pressing  issue in California today?)

So what’s an earnest nonprofit to do when it wants to cut through all the clutter?

Get creative.

Heal the Bay has tapped an amazing cadre of talent over the years at L.A.’s leading advertising, marketing, communications and design companies. With hat in hand, we’ve wheedled great work out of great minds. (Did you know that Chiat Day designed our now famous fishbones logo for free?)

Our strategy has been to find the surfers at an agency. It’s not hard to do – why do you think there are so many aspirational commercials these days of bearded hipsters loading their boards into their hybrid cars?

So when tasked by a coalition of L.A.’s leading environmental, labor and social justice groups to raise Measure W’s voice amid the mid-term noise, I turned to my neighbor and Bay Street surf buddy – Kevin McCarthy.

A longtime creative director, Kevin is the force behind such Heal the Bay hits as the “Drains to the Ocean” stencils spray-painted across L.A. sidewalks. He and his team also assembled the Jeremy Irons-narrated mockumentary “The Majestic Plastic Bag,” a viral hit that has been seen 2.5 million times and helped spur the statewide ban on single-use bags.

For Measure W, he assembled a creative coalition-of-the-willing to develop “sticky” public engagements, such as a “Haunted Storm Drain” tour during Halloween festivities at our Santa Monica Pier Aquarium and a makeshift “parklet” that popped-up on a busy DTLA street during lunchtime.

But he saved his best trick for last: doing some grass-roots marketing along the L.A. River.

Literally.

Last month, Kevin sent me a mock-up of a stunt to use live sod to spell out SAVE THE RAIN, SAVE L.A., VOTE YES ON W along the banks of the L.A. River.

The idea is brilliant in its simplicity and audacity. The L.A. River is the poster child for how we waste water. Each day its concrete channels funnel millions of gallons of usable water into the Pacific.

The River is also the perfect canvas for L.A.’s graffiti crews, whose work gets maximum visibility from car and train traffic that goes by its banks. Instead of spray paint, we’d use Mother Nature to spread the word. With our grass graffiti, we’d embody the very spirit of Measure W – turning concrete into green space. The medium would be the message!

Last week we quietly secured the necessary permits from FilmLA, which cut red-tape among the entities that claim jurisdiction over the River.

The installation took place Monday morning near the intersections of the 110 and 5 freeways. The site afford views for morning commuters over nearby bridges, as well as for Metro and Amtrak train riders.

As dawn broke, our stunt crew drove down a hidden driveway onto the river floor and set up camp. As a landscape designer, my wife Erin had secured beds of sod at a discounted rate. Crack landscape contractor Robert Herrera and his crew measured, cut and placed the grass in stencils laid out by Kevin and a few of our staff.

After two hours of hauling the heavy sod up the steep banks, our tired team stood on the edge of the river to examine our handiwork. Passers-by on the trains waved to us, filling us with satisfaction.

While the stunt paid off in real-time, we knew the real dividends would come with media coverage and social-sharing.

Top-rated KTLA Morning News sent a news crew to cover the installation. Partner L.A. Waterkeeper organized our expert video team – Will Durland, Lindsey Jurca, Ben Dolenc and Tyler Haggstrom. They shot drone footage as well as capturing time-lapse images. An edited package is now being shared with press and social media channels.

I know I’m biased, but the videos are stunning.

We’ll also share powerful video testimonials from some Angelenos whose lives and livelihoods depend on water: celebrity chef Raphael Lunetta, Golden Road Brewing co-founder Meg Gill, and L.A. County Fire Department Capt. Greg Rachal (who moonlights as president of the Black Surfers Assn.)

Lindsey and Will — a professional and domestic couple — assembled these evocative mini-films. Lindsey works for sister org and sometimes competitor Los Angeles Waterkeeper. She twisted Will’s arm to pitch in during a break from his regular professional work (“Survivor”). It’s been fun to collaborate with such passionate and committed creatives.

One post-script: No grass was harmed in the filming of this movie! My wife found a youth center to pick up the sod letters at the end of the day. The grass has a new home and is being put to good use in a recreational area.

After all, plant-life  – like water – is a terrible thing to waste.

Matthew King serves as communications director for Heal the Bay.

Political Disclosure: Heal the Bay and L.A. Waterkeeper paid for all materials and staff time for installation and filming. 

photo credits — top: Will Durland; drone: Tyler Haggstrom

 



This November, voters in L.A. County will decide whether to approve Measure W, a public funding measure to capture, treat and reuse stormwater throughout the region. Through a modest parcel tax, $300 million in funds would be made available for cities to build a lattice of nature-based projects throughout the region, such as green streets, wetlands and parks that capture and store rain and runoff. The measure would increase local water supply, improve water quality, provide more open space and reduce trash along our shorelines.

Here, Heal the Bay and our partners L.A. Waterkeeper and Natural Resources Defense Council address many of the misconceptions that have been raised by opponents of this common-sense measure.

MYTH: It hardly ever rains in Southern California. We don’t need to spend millions to capture a few sprinkles each year.

FACT: We can capture and reuse billions of gallons of stormwater and other runoff each year in L.A. County, enough to meet the needs of 2.5 million Angelenos.

In the decades to come, climate change means that greater L.A. will whipsaw from drought to floods to drought. We must use our wet years to ensure we have enough clean water when the dry ones come. Even on the driest day in August, tens of millions of gallons of runoff flow to the sea each day. During a single storm, up to 10 billion gallons of this liquid gold runs through our stormdrains and into the ocean. We need to capture, clean and reuse water – every drop, every day of the year.

MYTH: We’ve got enough water right now. We’ve got bigger problems to fix.

FACT: We take water for granted – at our own peril. 

With climate change worsening, extended periods of drought in our region are a given. We’ve got to stop importing 70% of our water at great cost and expense of fossil fuels. It’s just not smart. We now have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to replumb our region and source more water locally. Water is the lifeblood of our city. Let’s not waste it.

MYTH: This sounds like a good idea. But we simply can’t afford it right now.

FACT: The measure will pay dividends for years to come, saving taxpayers money in the long run. The average property owner would pay $83 a year to improve water quality and boost water supply.

With our current system, we are literally pouring water – and money – down the drain each day. This measure will provide a smart return-on-investment in four specific areas:

  • Enhanced public health: Hundreds of thousands of beachgoers each year get sick from swimming in runoff-polluted beaches in L.A. County each year, at a cost of nearly $200 million.
  • Reduced regulatory costs:  L.A. County is on the hook for an estimated $24 billion over the next two decades to meet strict water quality mandates set by the State Water Control Board.
  • Lower water costs: Importing water from up north is expensive and unreliable – and it only will get worse as climate change takes hold.
  • Improved economy: Dirty beaches, trashy rivers and polluted water are not conducive to tourism; we need to protect the value of greater L.A.’s $16 billion coastal economy.

MYTH: No one knows where the money will actually go. It will disappear into a rabbit hole in the General Fund.

FACT: Some 455 specific projects have already been identified by cities to help green L.A.

Some of the region’s best engineers have devised these multi-benefit infrastructure projects as part of watershed management plans that L.A. County cities must implement as a part of their stormwater permit. These projects have been approved not only by local cities, but by our regulatory agencies. We have the data-driven blueprints; now we need the funding to turn smart vision into reality.

MYTH: This is yet another financial burden on low-income communities and seniors on fixed incomes.

FACT: Low-income senior citizens would qualify for exemption from the Measure W parcel tax.

Low-income communities face the same penalties for not complying with the federal Clean Water Act, but they lack the resources to meet requirements.  Measure W provides funding for small-scale or community projects, for technical assistance and for stormwater education programs. Priority will be given to projects that benefit disadvantaged communities to assist in reaching compliance and avoiding federal fines.

MYTH: The measure penalizes property owners who have already made improvements capture rain or reduce runoff on their parcels.

FACT: Measure W includes a credit program for those who have already reduced runoff on their property (or commit to do so).

If you already installed a cistern that captures runoff from your roof, your roof no longer counts as a taxable impervious surface, and your tax estimate will go down. If you installed stormwater capture projects that eliminate runoff from your property entirely, and capture additional runoff from your neighborhood, you may receive a tax credit up to 100% of your original tax estimate.

MYTH: There is no mechanism to make sure the money is spent correctly.

FACT: A citizens oversight committee will provide transparency and accountability.

Each city will be given flexibility in spending the 40% of funds raised that go back to municipalities, while annual reporting and audit requirements will ensure it is spent responsibly on appropriate projects. The 50% of funding going to regional projects is awarded competitively and has even more stringent requirements to ensure responsible spending. Five separate committees will ensure that funding is given to projects that meet required criteria and that there is a 110% benefit return to disadvantaged communities. Spaces are reserved on the Watershed Area Steering Committee for a wide array of stakeholders, including community, environmental and business voices.

MYTH: We would all pay this tax, but it will only benefit a few people in certain areas.

FACT: All communities in greater L.A. will benefit from Measure W.

The measure will fund a wide range of project types and sizes, from neighborhood to regional in scale. The program allocates funds to areas in proportion to the taxes generated in that area. The combination of municipal programs (40% of tax revenue), regional projects (50% of tax revenue — with 110% benefit return to disadvantaged communities), and a requirement for a range of projects sizes will provide an equitable distribution of funds and an equitable distribution of benefits.

MYTH: This is a forever tax, with no “sunset clause.”

FACT: The Board of Supervisors can eliminate the funding measure in 30 years.

The tax is set at 2.5 cents per square foot of impervious surface on a given parcel. That price will never increase with inflation, which means that its value (and relative cost to the taxpayer) will decrease over time. After 30 years, property owners will pay the equivalent of approximately 1 cent per square foot, at which time the tax will be up for review by the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors. By this time, operations and maintenance will account for the vast majority of spending, so that cities do not have to dip into their general fund to keep these projects going for years to come.

MYTH: Green projects cannot reduce flood risk as well as gray infrastructure like concrete stormdrains and channelized rivers.

FACT: Nature works.

Many cities around the world are using nature-based projects to capture stormwater. Many of these initial projects are showing that green streets, wetlands and infiltration parks do reduce flood risk, while also providing many other benefits to its community. Portland, Ore., and Philadelphia are already using green solutions to meet the challenges in their rain-intensive communities, such as flooding and erosion. Here in L.A. County, the Elmer Avenue Neighborhood project has dramatically reduced flooding along streets used by residents and local school children.

MYTH: The taxing of individual property owner’s permeable surface is an arbitrary and unfair method for addressing the region’s stormwater issues.

FACT: A parcel tax is the fairest way for addressing the problem of stormwater runoff.

Fees based on the amount of impermeable surfaces make sense because they correlate directly to the source of polluted runoff. Property owners can implement project that capture their stormwater on-site to reduce their tax burden. The average parcel tax is estimated at $83, but property owners can go to a County website to determine their annual assessment. They can also appeal if they think their parcel tax is determined inaccurately.



From native storytelling to underwater ROV exploration, this weekend’s Marine Protected Area celebration at Zuma has plenty to offer, writes guest blogger Melina Watts. 

When ocean systems are allowed to function, the beauty of the sea generates life and vitality.  Marine Protected Area are protected underwater parks and have become a powerful tool for healing the world’s oceans.

This Saturday, Heal the Bay is joining Los Angeles Marine Protected Area Collaborative  for an “Honor the Ocean” event at Zuma Beach to celebrate these jewels off our local coastline.

Thanks to the hard work of many committed people, the state of California has established safe havens near Point Dume, Palos Verdes Peninsula and Catalina Island. Vulnerable species, pressured by overfishing and other human impacts, now have a chance to recover and breed.

Like terrestrial wildlife preserves, MPAs only succeed in protecting marine life if they are supported by the people who live, recreate and work in or near the MPA. We are reaching out to community members, tourists, surfers, fishers and students to celebrate these special places, our own “Yosemites of the Sea.”

The diverse members of the Collaborative bring unique expertise to the event. The day will begin with a Chumash blessing ceremony next to a tomol, a hand-constructed canoe, to connect to marine traditions that have existed for millennia. Midday storytelling by Tongva and Chumash elders will share the ecological and spiritual connection to the sea that flows through both Chumash and Tongva cultures.

Using recreation as a tool to connect guests to marine protection, Malibu Makos Surf Club will offer free surf lessons adjacent to the event. Los Angeles County Lifeguards will teach sidewalk CPR, and allow guests to check out the lifeguard longboards.

Given the driving need to preserve and restore marine biodiversity, Honor the Ocean offers a remarkable array of opportunities to learn on site about local marine life, including sea mammals, fish, algae, insects and birds.

Scientists and staff from the participating groups such as Heal the Bay, L.A. Waterkeeper, the Bay Foundation, California State Parks and the Cabrillo Marine Museum will offer natural history interpretation and talks. Via a beach walk, Linda Chilton from USC Sea Grant will teach citizen scientists how to use the iNaturalist app, which allows people to document and upload their discoveries in the wild. Heather Burdick will guide participants in a scavenger hunt.

Guests will have a unique chance to see state-of-the-art science in action. USC Sea Grant will bring a new underwater remotely operated vehicle. Attendees can see footage collected in Los Angeles County’s Marine Protected Areas. California Department of Fish and Wildlife will have a warden on site to explain MPA regulations, and offer free copies of the LA MPAs Fishing Guide.

Given that ocean health depends upon healthy watersheds, both the City of Malibu and Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains will provide insights about how human activities on shore impact marine systems.

In northern Los Angeles County, local MPAs start at El Matador (just below County Line) and come all the way down to Paradise Cove. In this area there are two categories of MPAs: the Point Dume State Marine Reserve, and the Point Dume State Marine Conservation Area.

In the Point Dume reserve area, one of the most protective of MPA designations, all fishing and harvesting is prohibited. This area stretches from El Matador to Point Dume.

In the Point Dume conservation area, limited recreational and commercial fishing are allowed and fishing is regulated by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. This area ranges from Point Dume to Paradise Cove.

Thinking globally, for the last three decades, countries around the world have created MPAs to protect marine environments and preserve biodiversity. Some 2.07% of the sea worldwide is now protected though some type of MPA.

If you plan to attend, please register for the event here. We hope you will join us in this celebration of marine life and First Nation culture!

 



A word to the wise: Avoid water contact at Los Angeles County beaches for at least 72 hours, following last night’s surprise storm.

All that lightning provided a beautiful show, but the accompanying rain did a number on our beaches.

The county’s 2,800-mile storm-drain system is designed to channel rainwater to the ocean to prevent local flooding. But it also carries tons of trash and bacteria-laden runoff directly into the Santa Monica and San Pedro bays following stormy weather.

A single major storm can send 10 billion gallons of water into our bays!

There’s another equally disturbing aspect to the runoff – it’s a huge waste of a precious resource.

Los Angeles imports costly and increasingly scarce water from Northern California and the Colorado River. We now import more than 80% of our water, using enormous amounts of energy and capital to do so.

Stormwater — if held, filtered and cleansed naturally in groundwater basins — could provide a safe, more secure and less costly source of drinking water. If L.A. County voters approve Measure W in next month’s election, the county’s Public Works Department would receive $300 million to build multi-benefit stormwater capture projects throughout the region.

The modest parcel tax would create a lattice of parks, green streets and wetlands throughout the region. Instead of sending runoff uselessly to the sea, the projects would capture and clean more than 100 billion gallons of water for reuse throughout the region. That’s enough to meet the water needs of 2.5 million Angelenos each year.

“It’s depressing to see all the waste on our shorelines after a big storm,” said Shelley Luce, president of Heal the Bay. “But it’s just as depressing to think about all that rainwater we are wasting. By approving Measure W, voters can turn a nuisance into a resource. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity and we need to seize it.”

More than 70 major outfalls spew manmade debris, animal waste, pesticides, automotive fluids and human-gastrointestinal viruses into the marine ecosystem after storms. This pollution poses human health risks, harms marine life and dampens the tourist economy by littering shorelines.

During the rainy season, Heal the Bay reminds residents that they can take steps in their own home to take pressure off an already taxed stormdrain system. Among them: keep trash out of gutters and stormdrains, dispose of animal waste and automotive fluids properly, and limiting runoff by curtailing such wasteful practices as hosing driveways and overwatering landscapes.



Heal the Bay is celebrating a major victory in the hard-fought fight to clean up chronically polluted beaches in Malibu — the opening of the Malibu Civic Center Treatment Facility. 

Malibu is one of the most breathtaking and desirable places to live in Southern California, but it has held a dirty little secret – septic systems in and around its cultural center have fouled nearby coastal waters for decades.

Malibu Creek, Malibu Lagoon, and the surrounding ocean, including Surfrider Beach, are critically polluted and numerous studies point to septic systems as a major contributor. Swimmers who recreate in these waters run the risk of all kinds of illnesses.

But today Heal the Bay staff and members celebrated an important milestone in what has been a long and protracted fight to reduce water pollution in Malibu – completion of the Civic Wastewater Treatment Facility.

It was all smiles at a ribbon-cutting Friday, but the battle to get the treatment center built was fraught with tension and even some rancor over the past two decades.

For more than 15 years, Heal the Bay has called for the Malibu Civic Center’s septic systems to be replaced by a centralized wastewater treatment facility. It has been a long and bumpy road, with officials complaining about costs and some residents worried about the specter of development if sewers are put in. But our advocacy  has now yielded tangible results.

The Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board adopted a Septic Prohibition in 2009 that required the phasing out by 2019 of all septic systems in the Malibu Civic Center Area (think Malibu Pier, Pepperdine, Malibu Bluffs Park). And in 2015 the Malibu City Council unanimously certified the Civic Center Wastewater Treatment Facility Final Environmental Impact Report and later secured funding for the facility.

Malibu City Councilmembers, along with Heal the Bay staff and members of the California State and Regional Water Control Boards, were all in attendance last Friday to cut the ribbon on the new facility.

It was especially gratifying to see Mark Gold, past Heal the Bay president and current board member, in attendance. Amid often fierce opposition from city officials and some Malibu property owners, Gold led the charge to demand an end to septic tanks in the Civic Center area for many years. He helped broker an MOU between the city and the regional water board that phased out septic tanks and mandated the building of a more modern treatment facility. (You can read more about his war wounds in one of his blog posts here.)

The wastewater treatment site is located at the intersection of Civic Center Way and Vista Pacifica. The facility will treat wastewater from properties in and around the Civic Center, and use the recycled water produced by the facility for irrigation of local parks and landscaping.

With a snip of the giant scisssors, history was made and Malibu ocean-users can now breathe a sigh of relief. Thanks to all our donors and advocates who helped Malibu officials do the right thing!



Staff scientist Ryan Searcy takes a closer look into the state’s decision not to drop fecal coliform regulations at California beaches. It’s an important example of our advocacy at work, and how collaboration with regulatory agencies can lead to better environmental policies.

Advocating for sound, science-based environmental policies is often both frustrating and rewarding. In California, we advocates are lucky that regulators generally share a similar goal of achieving a safe, healthy, and clean environment. However, we often find ourselves at disagreement on how to achieve that goal. In the end, when regulatory officials change policies or adopt a new regulation, our hope is that the best science guides the process. All relevant stakeholders should have their say, so that the policy or regulation serves the public and the environment to the highest benefit.

At the end of August we saw one example of this as the State Water Resources Control Board approved updates to the beach water quality standards provided in the California Ocean Plan. While it is true that Heal the Bay does not agree with all of the changes the State made to these standards, we want to particularly highlight a major success: that in the 11th hour, the State, along with Heal the Bay and other stakeholders, worked together to rewrite the standards to be more health protective by retaining fecal coliform.

In any given sample of ocean water, you are likely to find a veritable zoo of algae, bacteria, viruses, parasites, and other organisms. Fecal coliform, along with total coliform and Enterococcus, are the three primary fecal indicator bacteria (FIB) monitored and regulated at California ocean beaches to help us determine if it’s safe to swim. FIB in the water do not necessarily get you sick themselves, but presence of these organisms may also indicate the presence of the organisms that do get you sick, such as Salmonella, Campylobacter, and Norovirus. Swimming in water with high levels of FIB is correlated with an increased risk of skin rash, eye and ear infections, and gastroenteritis. Because of this, the State protects beachgoers by setting and enforcing water quality standards for FIB.

Last year, the State began the process of updating the water quality standards in the Ocean Plan, something that hadn’t been done since the 1980s. Initially, both total coliform and fecal coliform were dropped from the ocean regulatory standards, while standards for Enterococcus only were retained. To support this decision, the State initially cited the EPA’s 2012 meta-analysis of 27 epidemiological studies that concluded, among other findings, that Enterococcus alone was the best predictor of illness from a day at the beach. However, EPA’s analysis is not the most recent nor relevant science on water quality at California beaches. Only two of those 27 studies were performed in marine waters in the United States, and only one was performed in California; both were completed before the year 2000.

Recent epidemiological studies performed at California beaches since 2012 actually show that both Enterococcus and fecal coliform are indicators of elevated health risk. Even more interesting is that some of these studies also show that fecal coliform is a good indicator in certain types of exposure and environmental conditions where Enterococcus is not. The Colford et al. study performed at Doheny State Beach in 2012 indicated that both fecal coliform and Enterococcus were indicative of risk of gastrointestinal illness, and that when a swimmer’s entire body was submersed, fecal coliform was indicative of risk of illness when Enterococcus was not. The Surfer Health Study, performed in San Diego by our friends at the Surfrider Foundation and the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project (SCCWRP) in 2017, showed that fecal coliform was strongly correlated to certain illnesses in periods of wet weather when Enterococcus was not.

Additional to its known correlation to health risk, fecal coliform levels have often exceeded California standards, even at times when Enterococcus does not. Heal the Bay maintains a large database of FIB samples taken by California beach agencies, and these data fuel our Beach Report Card and NowCast programs. Our analysis of over 328,000 historical FIB samples taken at over 700 sites in the summer seasons from 1998 through 2017 showed that nearly 23,000 (7%) of those samples exceeded state standards for at least one FIB. Of those exceedances, nearly 3 out of every 4 days in which a health standard was exceeded at a California beach, Enterococcus was partially or fully to blame. So Enterococcus is undeniably an important indicator at ocean beaches.

However, the remaining measured exceedances were not due to Enterococcus. Fecal coliform exceeded California standards alone (that is, when total coliform and Enterococcus did not) in more than 16% of all recorded exceedances, an amount that Heal the Bay argues is significant when considered with its known correlation to health risk. Looking deeper into the data, we saw that fecal coliform was the FIB in highest exceedance at a number of well-known beaches. Troubled beaches like Cowell Beach, Pismo Beach Pier, Santa Monica Pier, and La Jolla Cove (among others) may not have been prioritized for getting cleaned up if fecal coliform were dropped from regulation.

Fortunately, a fecal coliform crisis was averted.

The State was set to adopt the revisions to the Ocean Plan, including the amendment that dropped fecal coliform standards from the regulations, at a public hearing in February of this year. Days before the adoption hearing, the lack of consideration of the relevant California science and the historical FIB data mentioned above were brought to the State’s attention, and the hearing was postponed in order to consider fecal coliform standards further.

After a meeting in the spring with a stakeholder group composed of Heal the Bay scientists; expert water quality scientists from Stanford, UCLA (including our former chief Mark Gold), and SCCWRP ; the California Coast Keeper Alliance; and representatives from some of the Regional Water Boards, the State went back and evaluated the relevant California-based science and the historical FIB sample data from California beaches, using them as evidence to rewrite the standards to retain fecal coliform. When the amendments to the water quality standards in the California Ocean Plan were finally adopted last month, the existing fecal coliform standards were retained, and the state agreed to continue to consider the relevant science and data in future updates of the Ocean Plan.

The clawback marked a huge win for California beaches and the people who visit them.

It was also a good example of a regulatory process that involves consideration of sound science and collaboration between a regulatory agency and its stakeholders. The task is not done, though. Heal the Bay looks forward to continuing the conversation with the State Water Board and other stakeholders as we continue to work towards water quality regulations that ensure our beaches are all available for Californians to safely enjoy.

You can read the State Water Board staff report that documents their full analysis here, starting on page 62.



Santa Monica often sets the stage for the rest of Southern California when it comes to curbing consumer practices that trash our oceans and neighborhoods.

In 2007, the Santa Monica City Council passed its first ordinance regulating the use of polystyrene, the type of foam typically used in fast-food and drink packaging that has become such an eyesore on our local beaches and neighborhoods.

Today, 110 municipalities in California have passed some type of legislation on the use of polystyrene.  Progressive cities like San Francisco, Malibu and Manhattan Beach have comprehensive bans that include retail sales, coolers and ice chests.

polystyrene ban

Last night, the City Council approved modifications to the City’s earlier ordinance on polystyrene, extending protections that will reduce blight and save marine life.

The new rules extend the existing polystyrene ban to include Food Service Ware (plates, bowls, utensils, cups, straws, and more) and prohibiting bio-plastic #7 and plastics #1-5. They also encourage alternatives such as paper, fiber, bagasse and wood for takeaway packaging.  They also require that takeaway straws and utensils only be made available to customers on a request-only basis, and that they be “marine degradable.”  There are exceptions for people with medical conditions for the use of straws.

These modifications are crucial if we are to systematically reduce plastic pollution in our communities and oceans.  In the last 18 years, Heal the Bay volunteers have removed over 736,000 pieces of plastic foam trash from L.A. beaches.  The harmful flow of single-use plastic foam is a constant threat to marine animals, wildlife and habitats.

And this pollution problem is only growing.  Of the more than 375,000 tons of polystyrene (plastic foam) produced in California each year, not even 1% gets recycled.  The rest ends up in our landfills, waterways and the ocean.

The new rules will help the city achieve its Zero Waste goals by 2030 — through diversion, composting, and recycling.

Nearly 30 people, ranging in age from 3 to 70 years old, spoke in support of the changes. Our policy leaders Katherine Pease and Mary Luna led the Heal the Bay contingent.  Councilmembers seemed enthusiastic during public testimony and wanted to learn more about how the City staff could work with businesses to facilitate transitioning polystyrene out of use.

Beginning January 1, 2019, vendors are not allowed to provide containers made out of polystyrene #6, or from other plastics #1-5; all containers need to be made out of materials like paper, wood, and fiber that meet the definition of marine degradable.

After that date, any business in Santa Monica serving food or drinks in containers labeled #1-6 would not be in compliance with this polystyrene ordinance, and the public may choose to educate them about the ordinance, or to file a report with the City’s Code Enforcement division to ensure compliance.

The definition of marine degradable is included in the ordinance language, specifying that products must degrade completely in marine waters or marine sediments in fewer than 120 days. Products predominantly made with plastics, either petroleum or biologically based, are not considered marine degradable.

Heal the Bay staff and our partners asked the Council to strengthen the ordinance by adding polystyrene items to the prohibited list, such as retail sales (e.g. packing materials, foam coolers) and grocery items (e.g. food trays, egg cartons).  The Council did add beverage lids to the list of items that need to be marine degradable.

The Council expressed interest in including retail sales and grocery items, but ultimately said the new ordinance isn’t the place for action.  Members instead directed staff to look at prohibition of polystyrene retail sales and come back with recommendations.  They also directed staff to look into possible charges for take-away containers (like the 10-cent charge for single-use plastic bags), and incentives for businesses to move more quickly to sustainable packaging.

The Santa Monica City Council showed great leadership last night by adopting the ordinance and continuing the conversation about how to strengthen it further.  We commend the efforts of city staff and councilmembers and look forward to working with the public to implement and build upon this important action.



New rules permit 1 out of 31 people to get sick from swimming at CA beaches

A day at the beach shouldn’t make anyone sick.  So it’s a bit perplexing to Heal the Bay that the state of California has just decided to weaken water-quality protections for the millions of people who visit our shoreline each year.

Last week the State Water Resources Control Board approved new standards for bacteria levels in our coastal and inland waters.  Unfortunately, the board has now decided that it’s acceptable that one person out of every 31 beachgoers become ill with diarrhea, intestinal ailments or skin rashes after a visit to the shore.

Think about that for a minute … if a typically-sized elementary school class goes on a field trip to the beach, it’s now OK for one of those children to later become sick from water contact.

But this isn’t just a theoretical debate. Tens of thousands of people get sick each year swimming at Southern California beaches.  Ocean-borne illnesses cause at least $20 million in health-related costs each year, according to L.A. County health officials.

We’re concerned because these new levels of “allowable” illness undermine public health protection and benefit polluters and dischargers.  The new rules basically endorse bacteria pollution levels set by the U.S. EPA, which had watered-down its own regulations in 2012 to Heal the Bay’s dismay.

California is known for setting stricter environmental standards than federal regulators. Instead of using the EPA as the gold standard for the Golden State, Heal the Bay believes that all standards and acceptable risk levels should be based on research performed along California’s unique coastline and watersheds.

Staff scientists Ryan Searcy and Karen Vu traveled to Sacramento to press this issue with the State Board, which is a branch of the California EPA.  The regulatory body oversees the state’s water quality, drinking water, and water rights programs.

The State Board also oversees Regional Boards, which develop water quality standards and enforces those standards when they are violated, all serving to protect the beneficial uses of the state’s waterways.

During our meetings we also expressed our concern about a provision to create a new inland regulatory designation that could have a major impact on efforts to increase recreation along the L.A. River.

The board has decided to create a new statewide beneficial-use designation for inland waterbodies, to be called Limited REC-1 (LREC-1).  The move may actually lead to efforts to restrict public access to spots along the L.A. River and other urban waterways.

L.A. River signage for water quality

Waterbodies in California that have recreational uses in or near the water are currently labeled either REC-1 or REC-2, depending on whether direct contact with and ingestion of the water will occur.  Depending on the designation, there are different water quality requirements for polluters that are discharging into the waterbodies.  The idea is to compel them to ensure that the beneficial use of the waterbody is maintained.

Under this new provision, a LREC-1 designation refers to waterbodies that are “limited by physical conditions such as very shallow water depth and restricted access and, as a result, ingestion of water is incidental and infrequent.”

Because an LREC-1 designation has less stringent water quality standards than a REC-1, an incentive is created for polluters to restrict public access to a waterbody to achieve a less protective designation.

This type of waterbody designation will have large implications for urban stream restoration efforts, such as those in the L.A. River, where a massive effort is under way to improve and increase public access.

However, we did manage to score a few wins in our trip to Sacramento.

Heal the Bay staff scientists worked with several other NGOs during the past few months and successfully stopped the State from dropping fecal coliform standards in determining ocean water-quality regulations.

The state had initially neglected California-based science that proves that fecal coliform remains a critical indicator of health risk at our beaches.

Fecal coliform is one of three fecal indicator bacteria that are monitored by beach agencies and regulated by the State.  These indicator bacteria aren’t necessarily harmful to humans  themselves, but each of the three are potentially indicative of the presence of pathogens in the water.  They are easier and cheaper to measure than directly measuring for the bugs that harm us.

In California, fecal coliform has been an important indicator of the risk of illness, along with enterococci and total coliform.  Thankfully, regulators agreed to go back and consider this science, and the original fecal coliform standards will remain.

Additionally, the state has also agreed to continue to consider the latest California-specific epidemiological studies to develop and improve appropriate bacteria objectives during future reviews of ocean-bacteria standards.

Some might wonder why the state is acting now to modify long-standing beach water-quality rules.

The board has cited a need to modernize its water quality standards. The last modification occurred in the late 1990s, with the passing of AB411 (which Heal the Bay helped enact).

AB411 mandated weekly monitoring of hundreds of California beaches, and requires beach agencies to post notices if the allowable thresholds are exceeded.  Since then, the EPA adopted new standards in 2012, and a number of relevant epidemiological studies were published in California.  The state made these changes in its standards mostly to align with the EPA, but neglected to consider the relevant epidemiological studies.

You can help us by paying attention to water quality at your favorite beaches and streams.  Fortunately, Heal the Bay has developed some tools for the public to use to do this easily.  Using the Beach Report Card, the NowCast system, and the River Report Card as advocacy tools.

All water-lovers can monitor their favorite swimming spots and raise their voices if they see consistently poor water quality.

You win some and you lose some whenever you travel to Sacramento’s halls of power, as any seasoned policy advocate will tell you.

While we are discouraged by the state’s decision to go lock-step with federal bacteria standards, we promise to keep fighting.  We will continue to support policies that provide the maximum public health protection.



Heal the Bay today released our 28th annual Beach Report Card, which assigns yearly A-to-F water-quality grades for more than 400 beaches statewide based on levels of harmful bacteria.

Our staff scientists put a ton of work into this comprehensive county-by-county survey of pollution along the California shoreline. We encourage you to geek out on all the stats and charts we’ve assembled in the colorful, easy-to-read report.

But if you are short on time, here are the major findings:

  • There’s one silver lining in Southern California’s recent swing back to drought-like conditions – improved beach water quality.
  • Less rain means less bacteria-laden urban runoff carried to the sea via the stormdrain system. Accordingly, bacterial pollution at our local beaches dipped dramatically in 2017-18. Some 95% of the beaches monitored in Southern California earned A grades during the busy summer season, a 5% uptick from the reporting period’s five-year average.
  • In another positive sign, a record 37 beaches in California made the Heal the Bay Honor Roll this year – meaning they are monitored year-round and score perfect A-plus grades each week during all seasons and weather conditions. You can see the full list on page 20 of the report.
  • Northern California beach-water quality sagged slightly in 2017-18, driven in large part by troubled beaches in San Mateo County and Humboldt County.
  • Some 88% of the 96 Northern California beaches monitored by Heal the Bay received an A or B grade for the busy summer season. That figure marks a 3% dip from the region’s five-year summer average.
  • In a somewhat surprising twist, Northern California held seven spots on our infamous Beach Bummer List, a ranking of the top 10 most polluted beaches in the state based on levels of harmful bacteria.
  • Poche Beach (creek mouth) in Orange County has the dubious honor of holding the top spot on our Beach Bummer List this year. For the full list, please see page 16 of the report.
  • You can get a county-by-county, beach-by-beach breakdown in the full report.
  • Download our press releases for Southern California and Northern California.

NowCast program

We’re also expanding our predictive beach water-quality NowCast program this summer, which could be a game-changer for better protecting people at the beach. Using sophisticated statistical models, environmental data, and past bacteria samples, the scientific team can accurately predict each morning what beaches might be impacted by bacterial pollution that day. Knowledge is power! This summer, Heal the Bay will run models for 20 beaches, from San Diego to San Francisco counties, posting predictions each morning on our digital platforms.

New website and mobile app

We’re also stoked to take the wraps off our newly redesigned Beach Report Card website, which allows users to get the latest water-quality grades for their favorite beaches in real-time. We’ve streamlined functionality and incorporated the new data sets from our NowCast program. Our tech team also is readying a new mobile app to launch this summer, just in time for prime beachgoing season. Learn more about what is new.

How to stay safe at the beach

  • Check beachreportcard.org for latest water quality grades
  • Avoid shallow, enclosed beaches, which usually suffer from poor circulation
  • Swim at least 100 yards away from flowing storm drains, creeks and piers

Download the Report

Visit Our New Beach Report Card website

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