Certain Malibu beaches see high bacteria levels

Bacteria advisories were issued at Leo Carrillo State Beach, Latino Shore and Topanga Canyon Beach, where bacteria levels have exceeded health standards set by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. Photo by Julie Ellerton.

It’s currently not advised to swim or surf at three Malibu beaches due to high levels of bacteria. Bacteria advisories were issued at Leo Carrillo State Beach, Latigo Shore, and Topanga Canyon Beach, where bacteria levels have exceeded health standards set by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. Other nearby beaches affected include Mother’s Beach in Marina del Rey and a few in Santa Monica and Venice.

Health officials advise against entering the water at these locations.

Pono Barnes, Ocean Lifeguard Specialist for the Los Angeles County Fire Department, explained the water quality signs posted at these beaches are to inform beachgoers that certain areas may have exceeded state bacteria levels. “The signs are posted not always because there is confirmed bacteria levels, but because there is a trigger that there’s a potential. Any time we have a significant rainfall, whether or not it’s at the beach, all that rainwater runoff goes to the beach. At certain trigger points, signs will be posted at the direction of Los Angeles County Public Health. We work together with them, and they notify us of any testing results. You’ll often see signs posted near areas where there’s natural runoff, like Topanga and Malibu Creek. Most of our piers in the Santa Monica Bay have storm drains under them, so rainwater runoff will come out of there.”

Look for signs posted in either white or yellow. Barnes explained the difference. “White signs are posted when there’s a flowing storm drain to alert beachgoers that a storm drain is flowing even though they may not visibly see it and that there’s a potential for exceeded levels of bacteria. Once testing is done and if high bacteria levels are found, yellow signs will be posted to make sure beachgoers are aware of that.” 

Beach closures are a different thing, Barnes elaborated. “Closures are handled more expeditiously. If there’s a large sewage spill or hazardous materials incident, we won’t wait for testing. We’ll close the beach out of an abundance of caution and then test to determine whether or not those bacteria levels are safe or not for beachgoers.”

A muddy brown ocean water didn’t look too inviting this past week at Malibu beaches. The Malibu Times asked the ocean specialist if the bacteria and brown muck was stirred up by the latest rounds of Santa Ana winds. “The coloration of water could be a number of things,” Barnes said. “It could be a red tide or an algae bloom. Specifically, in Malibu at the lagoon, it may have breached—the water that flows out of Malibu Creek and kind of accumulates there on the other side of the berm. At a certain point, waves on the other side of the berm will erode away at it. It can pop open, and that water will flow out to the ocean. It’s natural and has occurred for years and years.

During rainfall, we encourage beachgoers to stay out of the water for at least 72 hours to allow for the water to clear up. If there’s significant risk to people’s health, we will absolutely notify them. It’s up to the beachgoer whether they want to enjoy the water. Surfers may do a risk assessment and decide if the waves are worth it.”

The Malibu Times reached out to Los Angeles County Beaches and Harbors to see if the Santa Ana winds affected the high bacteria levels at area beaches. The agency referred The Malibu Times to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health that emailed the following response:

“Public Health is responsible for monitoring ocean waters to ensure that bacterial levels do not exceed State standards. While there are clear reasons for exceedances after a sewage spill or rain event, bacterial levels may fluctuate in ocean waters for various reasons. These include large amounts of trash at the beach or ocean debris—such as fresh seaweed, an increase in people and activities at the beach, more birds observed at the beach than usual, or an event that results in storm drain runoff that pushes water into the ocean. Any statements about the causes of these exceedances would be purely speculative and not supported by data.”

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