Paradise Cove one of state’s most polluted beaches

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Philippe Cousteau, of Planet Green, speaks about the status report on California coastal waters, announcing the "Ban the Bags, Butts and Bottles Challenge" at a press conference last Wednesday at Will Rogers State Beach.

While USGS preliminary tests of local waters show Malibu Colony septic tanks are not necessarily the cause of local pollution, a Stanford University study confirms that nutrient pollution from septics trigger algal blooms in ocean waters, upsetting the ecosystem.

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

The 19th annual beach water quality report released last week by the Natural Resources Defense Council puts California at the bottom of the list. Nine of the most polluted state beaches are in Southern California and the beach at Paradise Cove is one of them.

The NRDC announced its findings last week in conjunction with eco lifestyle television network Planet Green in a press conference at Will Rogers State Beach.

Planet Green’s Chief ocean correspondent Philippe Cousteau, the grandson of famed oceanographer Jacques-Yves Cousteau, who is credited with founding the modern ocean awareness movement, said that NRDC’s sobering report gives warning, but also opportunity.

“We all live downstream from one another,” Cousteau said. “And everyday we make decisions affecting the environment.”

Cousteau said the report shows that 28 percent of marine trash comes from cigarette butts, followed by plastic bags (Malibu banned plastic bags from retail and restaurant establishments last summer). So Planet Green is launching a nationwide initiative called the “Ban the Bags, Butts and Bottles Challenge!” Their “Blue August” events will include community action days, street teams handing out information with reusable totes and a world premiere of the documentary “Acid Test,” narrated by Sigourney Weaver.

But NRDC attorney Michelle Mehta said that an even more pressing public health concern is beach water quality. Beach closures across the nation topped 20,000 for the fourth consecutive year in 2008. Los Angeles County had the highest number of beach closures in the state and the most polluted water, with 20 percent of samples exceeding state standards.

“Millions of people are literally swimming in waste,” Mehta said at the press conference. “The EPA must update standards and water quality testing at our beaches so we have the results the same day. We need to know that it’s safe to swim today, not last week.” (The House of Representatives passed legislation last Wednesday requiring speedier testing for coastal pollution and funding federal projects to track sources of contamination.)

Most beach water contamination comes from leaking sewage and septic lines, industrial discharge into watersheds and stormwater runoff. Mehta said a low-cost way to regulate stormwater management is to capture and treat it before it hits the ocean, much like the plan for Malibu’s upcoming stormwater treatment plant at Legacy Park.

While the NRDC beach report found a percentage decrease in the number of beach closures nationwide from 2007, the drop was attributed to drought conditions in many areas of the country, resulting in less runoff, combined with decreased funding for water monitoring (including in California), rather than a measurable improvement.

“These problems are not simply going away,” Mehta emphasized.

Septic pollution studies continue

The City of Malibu has been the target of a number of lawsuits from the NRDC and Santa Monica Baykeeper for beach water pollution issues and violations of the federal Clean Water Act. In an effort to source contamination in local watersheds, the city hired the U.S. Geological Survey to do extensive testing around the city.

Preliminary results given to the city council last month proved how complicated the task of sourcing and treating ocean pollution can be.

In his presentation to the council, USGS scientist John Izbicki said that peak concentrations of bacterial contamination occurred at high tide around Malibu Colony, indicating that tidal action sweeping bird and other animal droppings out to sea were responsible, rather than groundwater discharge from local septic tanks.

However, Izbicki noted that, due to surf conditions, the team was unable to test freshwater discharge from underneath the sea wall of wooden pilings at Malibu Colony, several meters below the surface, and that varying results were expected from waters around older septic systems compared to new ones.

“We also tested a number of area wells,” Izbicki said in a phone interview. “Contamination seems to be low during the summer, which might be because of reduced stormwater runoff or more efficient septic systems.”

While Izbicki’s studies do not seem to establish a direct link between septic tanks and fecal coliform pollution, septic systems have been shown to directly affect coastal water quality through groundwater discharge with elevated “nutrients” levels like nitrogen and phosphate.

Alexandria Boehm, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, led a study last year of septic tanks’ effect on coastal water quality through submarine groundwater discharge, published in the journal Limnology and Oceanography.

“We are confident that our results show nutrient pollution from septic tanks that trigger algal blooms (the notorious “red tide” that can inject toxins and deplete nearby waters of oxygen) upsets the ecosystem,” Boehm said in a phone interview. “While our study did not study septic tanks’ association with microbial pollution, we are working on that research now.”

Izbicki said he is also testing for nutrient pollution from septic tanks’ groundwater discharge and will have results to present the council later this year.

Cara Horowitz, executive director of the Emmett Center on Climate Change and the Environment at UCLA, said this year’s NRDC report was the first to take into account the effects of climate change on the oceans’ health.

“Climate change is a growing public health concern, including its effect on beaches and oceans,” Horowitz said at the press conference. “From more intense storms that create more sewage overflow to more intense stormwater runoff, climate change is affecting our health. And the longer we wait to fix it, the more expensive it will be. I grew up at this beach and never thought about getting sick; so bills like AB 32 (the state bill limiting greenhouse gas emissions) must be implemented now.”

The full NRDC report, “Testing the Waters: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches,” can be found at www.nrdc.org/beaches