So Clean But So Dirty

By Chris Dixon Correspondent

Over the last two weeks, southern California has seen some of the best and the worst mother nature has to offer. A couple of weeks ago, the rainfall seemed positively apocalyptic, but today everywhere looks like a postcard. Warm (to ridiculously hot) weather, perfect west swells and broad vistas from the sunny beach to the snow-blanketed peaks of Mt. Baldy and Big Bear.

But if you’re a surfer, that perfect weather and those perfect waves can do a good job of putting a mask over an ocean that is still far from clean. Thanks to record rainfalls, in fact, some creeks and storm drains that are normally dry are still rapidly dumping dirty water into the ocean all along the coast from Santa Barbara to Tijuana. And that water can still be carrying everything from heavy metals to fecal enterococcus and coliform (like E.coli) to giardia to nasty adenoviruses.

“People see a storm,” said Heal The Bay’s Beach Report Card manager James Alamillo, “and then the next day, like today, the weather’s beautiful. There’s a false sense that it’s okay. It isn’t. We’re only just saying now that it’s safe to go back in the water in some places. But surfers should be very selective because there are still a number of spills out there.”

Indeed, a look at Heal The Bay’s amazing rundown of tested coastal waters shows potential nasty spots all along the coast that include Doheny, Aliso, Malibu Creek, the Santa Ana Rivermouth, and numerous spots in San Diego, including the San Luis Rey outlet in Oceanside and Imperial Beach, which is still closed for its whole length thanks to shit from our neighbors down south. In fact, there are still 15 southern California beach closures and far more areas that remain under advisory even this long after our last storms. At the height of the storm, there were over 75 closures.

“Anywhere between IB and the border,” said Alamillo, “just stay out of the water near a creek. They just had a spill sewage spill at Surfrider and, Seal Beach has both the LA and San Gabriel rivers coming out. Basically, I’d stay out of the water any places you see some flow.”

Interestingly and sadly, the normally clean waters of Trestles were even recently closed thanks to a Camp Pendleton sewage spill and the rapidly draining outflow at San Mateo Creek (between Uppers and Lowers) is still seeing high elevations of bacteria. The beach at Trestles right now is also amazingly littered with vegetation and garbage from upstream on the San Mateo.

“After a rainfall,” said Steve Weisberg Executive Director of the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project. (, “we typically see bacterial concentrations elevated a hundred to as much as 10,000 fold above normal levels. That’s not still true at every beach, but certainlly you’re still seeing elevations. Typically, elevated levels receded to normal levels within three days following the termination of a rain storm. But with one of these larger storms, it’s kind of interesting, the increased flows do tend to flush the system out, but does it wash it out entirely? No. even though it rained two weeks before, there’s still fresh material finding its way downstream.”

“You’ll see flow out of these creeks and channels lasting much longer than you normally would,” said Alamillo, “so the water quality impacts will last longer.”

When the next storm hits, the SCCWRP will be initiating a new program with volunteers, or perhaps guinea pigs, from the Surfrider Foundation. In this new testing program, surfers will paddle out to the surf zone to measure contaminants. Typically meaurements are taken right on the beach, and may not be a representative sample of what’s actually floating around where the waves break. Weisberg says it’s important to learn whether contaminants are actually trapped in the zone of breaking water and may be lower out in the lineup. Of course that won’t matter if you’re duck diving monster sets.

When asked what places to particularly avoid, both Weisberg and Alamillo said that the typical spots like lagoons and creek outflows are still putting down a good deal of dirty water. Of particular concern are places like Doheny and Kiddie Beach in Ventura that are sheltered from prevailing currents and have a river upstream. “You brought up Dana Point,” said Alamillo, “I’d just hammer that home. It’s just a red spot. It’s so problematic down there.”

Also problematic in the near future at Dana Point is the appearance of the Doheny sandbar. Locals wait for San Juan creek to take a big dump because its short lived sandbars can create a rare, epic righthander. Even if you see waves, you’re highly advised to keep driving until the creek mouth seals back up. And for goodness sakes, don’t surf at the mouth of the Santa Ana River. Have you ever driven through (and smelled) Norco? Where do you think all that cowshit and car waste from the 91 Freeway ends up? Right where you’re sitting.

As you look out on your perfect local lineup, Weisberg advises you to pay special attention to freshwater outflows, and ask yourself, how badly do you really want it? Even surfing a few blocks away from a creek or outflow can dramatically lower the level of contaminants you’re exposed to. Some of those contaminants, particularly E Coli, Giardia and even horrendously foul staphylococcus (one form is the source for flesh eating bacteria) can make you wish you had saved that barrel for a cleaner day.

“Whether you’re in Mexico or Southern California during these runoff periods,” said Alamillo, “they’re in essence the same. When you surf by a lagoon or a drain to the beach, you’re playing with fire. You don’t know what’s coming through that system. What’s washing off the streets, how treatment plants are handling those excess flows. Pay attention to where you’re going in the water.”


Heal The Bay’s Report Coastal Report Card
Amazing Up To Date Info on Your Spot’s Pollution CLICK HERE.

Surfrider’s Bluewater Task Force Page
Learn Something CLICK HERE.