Heal the Bay Blog

Category: Beach Report Card

I’m a patient woman, but I’ve had enough.

I realize I will never get back the countless hours I’ve spent in stuffy, over-crowded public hearings listening to endless complaints from California dischargers. I realize some dischargers might actually believe that upholding the federal Clean Water Act and implementing basic water quality protections in their community will bankrupt their cities or industry.

But ongoing public hearings about determining appropriate storm water pollution limits for Los Angeles County’s 84 cities have set a new low for wheel-spinning and economic fear-mongering – all at the expense of clean water for the region’s nearly 10 million residents.

Many of the cities regulated in a soon-to-be-released updated municipal stormwater permit came out to plead poverty due to water quality regulations at last month’s meeting of the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board. After months of debate, the board will issue the new permit this Thursday.

So what was all the fuss about?

Basically, any city that discharges water into the storm drain system, and ultimately the ocean, must abide by the regulations issued by the Regional Board as part of its permitting process. The rules require cities to implement different practices in their jurisdictions to ensure that their runoff doesn’t pollute local waterbodies. Examples of these requirements include building and maintaining trash capture devices at stormdrain outlets to ensure that debris doesn’t find its way into creeks, rivers and the ocean. Many of these requirements are basic practices, such as street sweeping, needed to maintain a healthy city aesthetic (permit or no permit).

During public hearings about the new permit, a long line of city managers came to the podium to relay dramatic stories of looming library closures and staff layoffs — all due to being compelled to implement water quality protections. They all urged the Regional Board to weaken existing and proposed limits.

Most notably, a city official from Vernon lamented that these proposed regulations would force his city to lay off 30-plus employees. Yes, you read that correctly – Vernon, the city that made headlines for lavishing huge salaries on top city officials. The city of 90 or so residents bankrolled million-dollar salaries and first-class air travel for its top managers. But now it can’t afford to keep its runoff free from metals, harmful bacteria and other pollutants before heading to the L.A. River and out to the beaches of Long Beach?

As Director of Water Quality at Heal the Bay, I work to convince decision-makers that our local waterbodies are well-worth protecting. It’s simple economics. Investing in clean water now will pay dividends for years to come. Nearly 400,000 jobs in Los Angeles County are ocean-related, responsible for $10 billion annually in wages and $20 billion in goods and services.

We’re a First World region, and we should have basic regulatory policies that reflect our commitment to clean water. Do we really want tourists coming to visit Los Angeles beaches and returning home with an illness after swimming in water polluted by urban runoff? Do we really want local resident feeding their family locally caught fish that contains DDT or PCB levels well above protective thresholds? Yet, the cities’ continued lobbying to weaken existing pollution requirements – and the board’s apparent willingness to consider their pleas – raises these troubling questions.

Waiting to testify at these protracted hearings, I often wonder how much truth there is in city managers’ assertions that spending on pollution prevention will perilously drain their coffers. So in advance of the October Regional Board hearing, our policy team did some digging that revealed this troubling fact: To curry favor with the Regional Board, a number of cities seem to be over-representing the amount of money that they are spending each year on complying with the permit.

Each year the cities must report to the Regional Board the actions they have taken to comply with the permit and the costs of implementation. We took a closer look at the reported expenditures in these Annual Reports to the Regional Board. In the latest release, we noticed a big red flag: the total spending on stormwater programs in 2011-12 by the 84 regulated cities and County was projected to increase 172% (237% when price adjusted) from the previous year. Such a dramatic increase in a single year is particularly glaring, given that overall stormwater spending since 2006 has decreased every year when price adjusted.

For example, Lynwood reported to the Regional Board that it would spend $10,679,915 more on stormwater projects in 2011-12 than it did the previous year –a fivefold increase. That kind of jump doesn’t pass the sniff test — $10 million in spending would equal more than 10% of the city’s entire annual budget. Lynwood may be doing some good work with stormwater pollution controls, but the reported numbers just didn’t seem plausible when compared to spending projections by cities with similar populations and geographic area.

As a next step, we took a sample of cities that showed the greatest single-year increase in proposed expenditures: Culver City, Diamond Bar, Lynwood, and South Pasadena. Comparing the four cities to other Los Angeles County cities with similar populations, land area and land area per capita, we continued to notice major discrepancies.

For example, South Pasadena projected to spend $28,697,450 to comply with the permit in 2011-2012, whereas Agoura Hills with a similar population size projected only $513,550 in spending. We simply can’t believe that South Pasadena is more vigilant about stormwater than Agoura Hills by a factor of 55. Comparing cities with similar geographic areas, South Pasadena projects to outspend San Marino, its nearby neighbor, by over $28 million.

To get to the bottom of this discrepancy, we examined the actual approved city budgets for cities in our sample. In the annual budget for Lynwood, managers claim to have had a storm water budget of $237,432 in 2010-11 and $313,140 in 2011-12. However, the numbers reported to the Regional Board were $2,308,085 and $12,988,000, respectively. We saw similar abnormalities in other cities.

Based on this cursory review, we have reached several conclusions:

  • Some municipalities appear to have mischaracterized their stormwater expenditures in their Regional Board Annual Reports,
  • City budgets and Regional Board-reported stormwater expenditures do not always match, and;
  • These findings call into question the validity of financial complaints made in testimony at the hearings.

Even the board’s staff has uncovered inconsistencies. In a presentation at the October hearing, Executive Officer Sam Unger noted “non-uniformity” in reporting and said “not all costs reported can be solely attributable to compliance with the requirements of the L.A. County MS4 Permit.”

It’s important to note that not all dischargers are manipulating numbers. Many are abiding by the permit and trying hard to reduce their contribution to water pollution. Many city managers work creatively within the constraints of city budgets to create stormwater programs with high impact and relatively low public cost. For example, the City of Los Angeles and Santa Monica passed far-reaching Low Impact Development Ordinances on their own initiative, requiring developers to infiltrate and capture runoff on-site before it heads to the sea.

Unfortunately, many dischargers seem to be making an impact on Regional Board members and staff with their emotional testimony – even if their numbers don’t add up.

The latest version of the permit is a major weakening from a draft issued in June without any sufficient justification. These changes may trim some city budgets, but to what end? Any short-term cutbacks in stormwater investments will maintain the status quo of dirty water and will come at a great cost to our ocean economy and our environment down the line.

As our case studies demonstrate, the Regional Board seems to be responding to a group of Chicken Littles crying disingenuously that the sky is falling due to environmental regulations.

The Regional Board will make a final decision on the permit at its Thursday hearing. I’m sure I’ll hear many more pleas of poverty due to environmental protection. I’m still hoping that the Regional Board will see that light and follow its sworn duty to safeguard our region’s water quality.

Vernon may be having major budgetary problems, but I’m certain they aren’t due to water quality regulations.

– Kirsten James

Water Quality Director, Heal the Bay

Join us November 8 at the public hearing on the revised draft of the stormwater permit.

This grassroots campaign needs your donations to stop the attack on clean water.

Sign up for our Action Alerts to stay up to date on the Take L.A. by Storm campaign, or follow us on Twitter for real-time updates with the hashtags #LAbyStorm and #CleanWater.

Heal the Bay has been fighting to protect our local waters since 1985 and we’ve made a lot of friends along the way who steadfastly support our efforts.

For almost 20 years, actress and glamour gal Amy Smart’s been in our corner, fearlessly speaking up against plastic pollution. A Heal the Bay board member, Amy is often called upon to help us in our campaigns, whether it’s advocating for a Los Angeles plastic bag ban or Coastal Cleanup Day. Yet, she still finds creative ways of supporting us, including teaming up with her favorite clothing designer, Rachel Pally. Through October 13, Rachel Pally is donating 20% of all her proceeds to Heal the Bay. Thank you to Amy and Rachel for your help in sustaining our mission.

We also thank one of our neighbors, Rusty’s Surf Ranch. Bring your kids to the Aquarium on Tuesdays at 3:30 p.m. to help feed our sea stars, then head upstairs to Rusty’s Surf Ranch on the Pier where kids eat FREE with proof of Aquarium entry! One child’s meal is free with the purchase of an adult entree. Thank you, Rusty’s!

We’d like to take the time to thank the Grousbeck Family Foundation. If you check our Beach Report Card before you swim or surf, then you’ve benefited from their support. We appreciate their help in sustaining this valuable public health tool.

Heal the Bay thanks Feit Electric

We wish the Riding Currents team a bon voyage as they head south on their expedition along the California Coast, collecting water samples for us along the way! We’re grateful for the help gathering data for our water quality monitoring.

Last Saturday, employees from Feit Electric (pictured, right) did their part, by cleaning the beach in Hermosa and helping us defend our Bay from pollution! Thank you, Feit!

Protect your car and the ocean with the Ford Motor Company’s Community Changes program. Thank you, Ford! Get your next oil change through this program at one of four local dealerships (it doesn’t matter what make of car you drive) and name your price. Whatever amount you choose to pay will go directly to Heal the Bay. Register here.

It’s not too late! Order a tank or tee-shirt from Honu Yoga and they’ll donate 20% to Heal the Bay! Namaste. And, all through October, Casmaine Boutique (2914 Main Street in Santa Monica) will support Heal the Bay with every purchase of women’s clothes, jewelry or home décor.

Want to see your name here? You and/or your company can also help support Heal the Bay’s work to keep our local waters healthy and cleanLearn how.

This morning, after listening to the rain fall on my roof all night and waking up to soggy streets, I put on my raincoat and trekked out to see what the stormdrains were pumping out onto the beaches. What I found was quite shocking — this being my first time witnessing what Heal the Bay calls “First Flush,” or the first significant rainfall of the year.

I ventured out to the Pico/Kenter stormdrain and saw runoff flowing fast out onto the Santa Monica beach, carrying along with it strong smells reminiscent of motor oil and gasoline, hundreds of plastic cups, chip bags, soda cans, an unusually high number of tennis balls, plastic bags (some full of pet waste), bits of Styrofoam, bottle caps, and more urban detritus. It was a saddening and somber sight, to say the least.

No bucket or trash bag could clean up the mess that was before me. And the worse part about it was thinking of all the trash that I didn’t see, that ended up tossed around in the heavy surf and pulled out to sea, only to wash up on distant shores — if it wasn’t first mistaken for food by some unfortunate marine creature. And then there’s all that unseen bacteria and other pathogens spewing into the sea, ready to pounce on the surfers at Bay Street who are unable to stay out of the water when there’s decent swell.

These photos speak for themselves.

2012 First Flush

The First Flush often carries higher levels of trash/debris, pet waste, fertilizers, toxic chemicals, and automotive fluids through our neighborhoods and into our local creeks, rivers, and ocean environments. This runoff is a main source of pollution to our local waterways, because unlike sewage, this polluted water receives no treatment or screening and flows freely along our streets into the catch basins and out into the network of open channels, creeks, and rivers until it reaches the ocean. All this runoff flows through a 5,000 mile-long storm drain system that drains the Greater Los Angeles area.

So be prepared for possible localized flooding from plugged catch basins due to the large amounts of trash clogging the openings. If this happens, then please call it in to the local agency so that they can unplug the drain. Consult this listing of county hotlines.

In addition, avoid surfing or swimming this weekend. Even if the surf is up, the sun is out, and the rainstorm has passed, health officials generally recommend to stay out of the ocean water for more than 72 hours and avoid stormdrain impacted and enclosed beaches for 5 to 10 days after a storm. The reason to stay out of the ocean? This runoff can cause a variety of human pathogens, which can cause illnesses like respiratory infection or stomach flu. Near flowing storm drain outlets, bacteria indicator counts are approximately 10 times higher at ankle depth – where small children typically play – than at chest depth.

How will you know when it’s safe to return to the water? Always check our Beach Report Card for the water quality of your favorite or local beach prior to visiting it.

And yes, there are simple things you can do to help. Heal the Bay reminds L.A. residents that they can take steps in their own homes and neighborhoods to take pressure off an already taxed storm drain system: Join a local group clean-up, keep trash out of gutters and storm drains, and dispose of animal waste and automotive fluids properly. Find out more tips on how you can get involved.

Seeing all that manmade waste on the beach this morning saddened me, but there is hope in a new initiative afoot that could reduce the impact of stormwater and have a real positive impact on local water quality – Los Angeles County’s Clean Water, Clean Beaches Measure. This program is an opportunity for Los Angeles County residents to reduce harmful trash and pollution in our waterways and protect local sources of drinking water from contamination. Read more about the measure.

-Ana Luisa Ahern, Campaigns Manager

Two avid surfers have set sail on a two-week expedition in a 22-foot, all-electric boat down the Californian and Mexican coasts. Their mission: Survey the health of the Southern California’s ocean waters and raise awareness about plastics in the sea.

Mark Ward and Billy Dutton will take water samples throughout L.A. County and share them with Heal the Bay. Amanda Griesbach, water quality scientist at Heal the Bay, trained Mark and Billy to analyze and report on water conditions each day.

“Taking these samples helps Heal the Bay because Mark and Billy will be testing the water far from shore,” says Griesbach. “Our monitoring compliance samples are collected close to the shore in ankle-depth water. Mark and Billy will be out where people swim and surf. It’ll be interesting to see if there’s consistency, or if the bacterial pollution in problem areas dilutes that far from shore.”

Mark and Billy will discuss their “Riding Currents” expedition on October 10 at 6 p.m. at the California Yacht Club, 4469 Admiralty Way in Marina Del Rey. Contact: 310.823.4567

Follow them on Facebook.

Track their journey.

Interested in how clean L.A. waters really are? Consult Heal the Bay’s Beach Report Card. Know before you go.

NBC LA reported today (10/3/2012) that a weekend sewage spill will likely keep Long Beach Alamitos Bay beaches shut down for at least two more days.

A private sump pump that serves a residential community near the Cerritos Channel failed on Sunday, spilling sewage that flowed in Alamitos Bay, city public health officials said.

Two locations at Alamitos Bay – the Second Street Bridge at Bayshore, and 56th Place – recently received “C” grades on Heal the Bay’s annual Beach Report Card for summer water quality.

Just in time to head to the shore for the Labor Day weekend, Heal the Bay’s end-of-summer 2012 Beach Report Card for Oregon and Washington shows mostly A’s and B’s, with just a few spots that need improving. This is the third year that Heal the Bay has released summertime bacterial pollution data for beaches in the Pacific Northwest.

The report analyzed water quality data collected between Memorial Day and Labor Day at 240 monitoring locations in Oregon and Washington, issuing an A-to-F grade assigned to each beach based on levels of bacterial pollution. The lower the grade, the greater the risk of an ocean user contracting an illness from contact with the water.

In Washington, swimmers are warned to avoid Holmes Harbor’s (Freeland County Park in Island County), Larrabee State Park (Whatcom County) and Mukilteo Lighthouse Park (Snohomish County). State agencies investigating high bacteria counts have identified problems with thick beach wrack, animal waste and polluted stormwater discharge, respectively, at these beach monitoring locations.

Meanwhile, Oregon beaches were quite clean this summer, with all 11 regularly monitored beaches in Clatsop and Tillamook counties receiving A grades for the third straight year.

Ocean lovers all along the Pacific Coast can check their local beach’s water quality themselves via Heal the Bay’s free Beach Report Card app for iPhone and Android users, which provides searchable A through F grades, weather conditions and users tips for more than 650 beaches in California, Oregon and Washington. Stay tuned for the end-of-summer Beach Report Card for California in the coming weeks.

Unfortunately, proposed cuts by the EPA threaten future beach water quality testing by zeroing out BEACH Act grant funding throughout the United States. Take action to find out more and send a letter directly to the EPA to restore such funding.

As of August 11, the harbor water area at the Huntington Harbour Boat Launch in Orange County at Warner and PCH to the boat docks at Bluewater Lane is closed to swimming and diving due to a sewage spill.

Baby Beach in Dana Point and Poche Beach in San Clemente were also on alert for high bacteria levels.

County environmental health officials also advise beachgoers to avoid contact with any beach area adjacent to storm drains, creeks and rivers, where bacteria may be high.

Ocean and bay waters are closed when an immediate health hazard is identified, such as a sewage spill.

More information here.


Only you can prevent water pollution.

 The City of Malibu recently introduced a water pollution prevention hotline as a way to improve local water quality. Residents can call (310) 359-8003 to report environment and public health threats.

 The hotline is staffed with bilingual operators seven days a week, 24 hours a day, and will immediately notify appropriate City staff to respond to the incident.

Examples of reportable activities include:

  • Sewage discharges onto the ground, into storm drains or surface waters
  • Overflowing onsite wastewater treatment systems (OWTS also known as Septic Systems)
  • Septic or gray water (soapy water from washing machines or car washing) flowing towards storm drains or surface waters
  • Pollution entering storm drains or surface waters
  • Contamination to creeks, lagoons, or the ocean
  • Dry-weather discharge from pipes
  • Dumping into drains and/or surface waters
  • Construction site soil or debris entering the streets, storm drains, or surface waters
  • Polluted runoff from construction storage or leaking dumpsters

 Don’t live in Malibu? You can still report pollution. Download our directory of Los Angeles County pollution hotlines.

June 4, 2012

The California Travel Association (CTA) will bestow its annual Tourism Stewardship of the Year award this week to Heal the Bay, recognizing us for doing the most to “protect, preserve, restore, improve, expand, or otherwise enhance California’s natural, cultural, or historical treasures.”

In honoring Heal the Bay, the CTA noted our education and advocacy initiatives to protect oceans statewide and beautify beaches for the millions of people who visit California each year, including:

  • The Beach Report Card® that provides weekly water quality grades to more than 500 California beaches;
  • Our advocacy work to help create newly established Marine Protected Areas off the coast of Southern California;
  • The ongoing education of nearly 100,000 visitors to Heal the Bay’s Santa Monica Pier Aquarium and
  • Our contribution to ending the scourge of pollution on our shores by sponsoring a number of regional and statewide measures that have significantly reduced urban runoff and marine debris.

Heal the Bay’s Coastal Resources Director, Sarah Sikich, will accept the award on Heal the Bay’s behalf during an event organized by the state’s leading travel trade organization during its annual convention June 4-6 in Sacramento. Heal the Bay is among seven honorees designated by the CTA, including surf industry legend Jack O’Neill, the Francis Ford Coppola winery and Napa Valley chef Michael Chiarello.

“Protecting the California coastline isn’t just good for the environment,” said Sikich. “It’s good for the statewide economy. The millions of visitors who come to our beaches each year expect clean water and sand. We all have a duty to protect what we love.”

Read more.

Learn more about all the ways you can help Heal the Bay.

Full information on all the award winners here.

Ocean lovers in the Orange County now have a newly-enhanced resource for assessing water quality conditions before going for a swim.

 The Orange County Health Agency’s Ocean Water Protection Program just upgraded its public web tool, making it more user-friendly with features that include:

  • An interactive Google Earth map on the homepage that allows a quick status check of current ocean water quality conditions.
  • Color-coded map pins (green-yellow-red) indicating the current ocean water quality conditions.
  • A “menu bar” along the top of the Google Earth map that provides an easy-to-use drop down list to find your favorite local beach area, from Huntington Beach to San Clemente.
  • Clicking on the drop down list provides a close up view of the local beach area with water quality status, current weather conditions, beach amenities and beach information links.
  • Clicking on a color-coded pin provides a photo and directions to the beach along with information about the monitoring location and its sampling frequency.

Give it a try!

Read how California beaches fared in Heal the Bay’s recently-released annual Beach Report Card® . Weekly grades are also available from your iPhone or Android or online at In addition, grades can now be viewed on Weather Underground.