Surfrider still dirty; reduced runoff key to cleanup

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A dropped lawsuit brings local beaches closer to having clean waters someday, but the City of Malibu is still lagging on design and implementation of system to help reduce urban runoff.

By Lindsay Kuhn/Special to The Malibu Times

Malibu’s derelict child, Surfrider State Beach, now has a chance for reformation. Earlier this month, the city of Los Angeles dropped its lawsuit against tightened environmental regulations issued in December 2001 by the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board.

The regulations require the city to reduce its polluted urban runoff, one reason, according to Heal the Bay, Surfrider flunks water quality tests, year after year.

Three nonprofit environmental organizations have been defending the regulations: The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC); Santa Monica Baykeeper, and Heal the Bay.

Meanwhile, the City of Malibu has not gone forward with a plan to design a system to treat the highly polluted urban runoff flowing to Malibu Creek and Malibu Lagoon. In 2002, the City of Malibu contracted with an engineering firm, ENARTEC, Inc. to design the system. But ENARTEC, Inc. dissolved in 2003 due to a downturn in the economy, and the city has not yet hired another firm.

This year, Heal the Bay listed Surfrider as one of the worst Los Angeles County monitoring locations, coining it a “beach bummer.” In the organization’s “13th Annual Beach Report Card,” Surfrider scored an F for it’s year round dry weather category.

In “Testing the Waters: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches,” a publication put out in August by the NRDC, the water quality after a rainstorm in local waters is so bad that the county advises swimmer to avoid ocean water for 72 hours after a rainstorm.

Since water quality is, in general, poorer on rainy days, three categories are used in assessing the water quality: year round dry weather, when no rain has fallen on or three days prior to that day; wet weather, days with rain; dry season, a period running from April through September.

Poor grades indicated high levels of bacteria that include disease-causing organisms from human and animal wastes. In the case of Surfrider State Beach in Malibu, Heal the Bay, in its Report Card, attributes the high level of pollution to runoff from the Malibu Lagoon and the Tapia Sewage Treatment Plant.

However, Suzanne Goode, a senior resource ecologist for the California Department of Parks and Resources, denies the correlation between the Tapia Sewage Treatment Plant and the pollution of Surfrider State Beach.

“I’ve heard those suspicions since I’ve been working here for 19 years,” she said. “But the only detrimental impacts to the creek is by way of too much water discharged, but not bacteria.”

Goode explained that the Tapia Sewage Treatment Plant treats the sewage to the tertiary level-the highest. According to the reports from Tapia, the level of bacteria is zero. Goode instead, connected the pollution at Surfrider to the expansive and highly developed nature of the Malibu Creek Watershed. A watershed is a geographic area in which all the rainfall drains to a single point. The more developed a watershed, the more polluted the discharge point, due to various factors, including runoff from parking lots, septic tanks and cat and dog feces. Goode did not isolate one source of the pollution.

“The pollution’s probably due to many factors,” Goode said.

Hallie Jones, manager of public relations at Heal the Bay, cited the storm drain system, a component of the watershed, for the poor water quality on wet days.

“There is more run-off on wet days,” Jones said. “It’s because Los Angeles has so much concrete.”

The concrete prevents the rainwater from absorbing into the ground and percolating back into the natural water ecosystem. The rain, instead, travels through the storm drain system, and in the process, picks up pathogenic bacteria.

The storm drain system, designed to prevent flooding, is a network of underground pipes and tunnels that carry water, collected from catch basins, or gutters, along the street, to some body of water, in this case, the Malibu Lagoon. And in turn, Jones said, Surfrider beach is affected because it is located at an outlet of the Malibu Lagoon.

And even though the city of Los Angeles has dismissed its case against the Regional Water Board, dozens of other cities including Pomona, the county of Los Angeles, Beverly Hills, and Arcadia, continue their litigation against the tightened regulations.

While the hullabaloo over the regulations ensues, Surfrider State Beach continues to blossom with colorful umbrellas.

“Californians are still swimming in dirty water,” David Beckman said, director of NRDC’s Coastal Water Quality Project in Los Angeles.