Public Forum: Improving Malibu Creek, Lagoon, and Surfrider Beach

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Even if you just drive by portions of Malibu Creek, Lagoon and Surfrider Beach, you probably realize how these places are so special. If you are fortunate enough to interact there more by surfing a point-perfect wave, or viewing the diverse birds and natural scenes, you can easily become impassioned and protective.

Some thirty years ago, surfers, fish and smaller invertebrate wild life were getting sick and sometimes even dying from water pollution and degradation. A survey I did of surfers confirmed alarming reports of ear, sinus, wound and gastrointestinal infections. And a study by biologists of the lagoon revealed its degradation by having too much incoming water during non-winter months, causing unnatural breeching of its berm and unnatural harmful emptying. And there were excessive nutrients, stagnation and algae overgrowth, causing harmful oxygen and pH levels.

Added to this, occasional monitoring has revealed some fish kills below the Tapia sewage and wastewater plant discharges into Malibu Creek; presumably this is because the plant was only designed to remove germs and domestic, not industrial, wastes or illegal dumping of poisonous or cancer-causing chemicals.

In response, the Malibu Creek Watershed group formed, including many stakeholders, various advocates and potential problem solvers. After thousands of hours of meetings and various studies, what has been done to improve Malibu Creek, Lagoon and/or Surfrider Beach?

Congratulations to all the activists: the incidence of surfer infections observed by me and others over the past ten years from polluted water has markedly declined. This can likely be attributed to three things: 1) prohibiting Tapia wastewater discharges from April 15 to November 15 so that the lagoon breaches were substantially lessened; 2) replacing old commercial wastewater onsite facilities near Malibu Creek with tertiary treatment systems for killing germs; 3) evaluating and upgrading where necessary upstream, creekside septic systems.

Preliminary statements, soon to be released, from United States Geological Survey indicate that no human pathogens were found in the creek, lagoon or in the groundwater associated with septic systems. This included the Malibu Colony residences and Civic Center commercial centers that were thoroughly examined for disease-causing bacteria contamination to the creek and lagoon.

The UC Berkeley School of Public Health study of swimmers and non-swimmers at Surfrider Beach is also soon to be released. Early reports are that water quality is greatly improved over 1995 and that there was minimal increase in the level of illness for swimmers compared to sunbathers on the beach.

What remains and still fuels the confusions and controversies are high counts of so-called indicator bacteria (enterococci, total coliforms, enteric coliforms), which have been repeatedly found in the lagoon and surf zone waters, sediments and algae. Further tests have shown that the sources of these bacteria are the soils, sediments, birds and other animals from the creek and lagoon. Bird and brine fly feces are collected in shoreline kelp and get mixed up in the waves that are sampled. Very rarely do bacteria, viruses and parasites from natural non-human sources cause any human diseases (zoonosis).

The only recent germ to be found on the beach and adjacent surf zone are Staphylococcal bacteria that reportedly have come from beach goers. At five beaches in a recent NOAA study, water and sand samples are positive and are correlated with the number of beachgoers.

To further safeguard the health of surfers, swimmers and waders at Surfrider Beach: 1) Continue the requirement for tertiary septic systems upgrades for homes adjacent to the creek and lagoon; 2) Require a tertiary sewage treatment package plant for new or large commercial developments in the Civic Center near the creek or lagoon; 3) Phase out rain event loopholes for Tapia discharges from at least February 15 through December 1; 4) Enforce no camping regulations by Malibu Creek and provide more bathrooms in adjacent parks; 5) Phase in pollution monitoring with human specific germ rather than misleading indicator bacteria. 6) Mandate the Tapia plant to remove all toxic metals and cancer-causing chemicals.

The Regional Water Quality Control Board’s mandate for a large Civic Center sewage treatment plant is very likely not necessary. There is no need to sewer homes and small businesses from Malibu Road, Malibu Colony and Malibu Knolls to Sweetwater Mesa and portions of PCH near the pier.

As to remedies for wildlife at Malibu Lagoon and the degradation of wave quality at Third and Second Points at Surfrider Beach, please read my further comments in the letter to the editor next week and join in the discussions prior to and during the Malibu City Council Meeting on April 11.

Jeff Harris, M.D., MPH