Still reeling from an earlier round of beach closures sparked by a late February beach spill, San Diego may be socked with additional shutdowns due to an increase in testing.
This month kicks off seven months of testing for pollution at beaches throughout California. Each of the state’s coastal counties will test various sites once a week for contamination, through October. Areas with high bacteria levels will be posted.
Already, in just the first week of testing, signs have gone up in several areas. Sunset Cliffs, in Ocean Beach, has been posted. So has Crystal Pier in Pacific Beach, Los Pe & #324;asquitos Lagoon Outlet at Torrey Pines State Beach, and the San Dieguito River mouth in Del Mar.
The testing is sparked by AB-411, the “Right to Know” law, drafted by Howard Wayne, D-San Diego. The law, approved in 1997, established California’s first statewide beach pollution monitoring and notification program.
Wayne said he was moved to create the law because he heard of several San Diegans reporting flu-like symptoms after coming into contact with the ocean.
As he investigated the problem, he found coastal water quality standards varied widely up and down the coast , and also some local governments didn’t do any regular testing at all.
“I authored (this legislation) to clean up our beaches,” Wayne said. “Clean beaches are vital for our environment, as well as California’s $10 billion tourist industry.”
First Year Of Testing
This year marks the first time ocean testing will be conducted in all of the state’s coastal counties all throughout the summer season. The law went into effect last year, but testing was delayed until July.
Although posting could keep people away, affecting some area businesses, there are a few silver linings to the clouds.
Sal Giametta, vice president for community relations at the San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau, noted few postings occur at the most crucial times , the summer months.
“Our peak seasons here in the tourist season are the months of July and August,” he said. “The timing has been such that the impact is not as severe as it could be.”
Also, since the testing is required in all of California’s coastal counties, that puts San Diego on a more level playing field.
Previously, San Diego was one of the few communities that actually tested its waters, leading to beach closures. People thought this was a sign that San Diego water was more polluted than elsewhere, when in fact, the opposite was true, Giametta said.
Level Playing Field
“Prior to this legislation being passed, (beach testing) was not mandated, and yet San Diego for many years was the only community that actually did this. So we had a high number of beach closures, and people wondered, ‘Gee, how come you have all these beach closures and others don’t?’ Well, there’s a simple answer. Other people don’t care to test their water,” he said.
Right now, San Diego County has two major assets to help the area survive any problems with its beaches. For one, the county has 70 miles of coastline. So if three or four miles of beach gets posted for pollution, that won’t have as devastating an effect as in other beach resort communities, which have only a few miles of shore to begin with, Giametta said.
Also, San Diego has many other tourist attractions besides its beaches. A beach posting won’t affect the overall flow of tourists, since there’s so much to do elsewhere, he said.
Of course, this will be small comfort to the businesses affected by beach closures, Giametta acknowledged.
Jane Donley knows all about that. As co-owner of Dog Beach Dog Wash, she estimates a 50 percent drop in business over the past four months , since Dog Beach was posted around Thanksgiving.
And it isn’t just her. Other businesses around Dog Beach and in Ocean Beach have also reported losing income, she said.
Impact On Businesses
“It keeps people out of Ocean Beach. People going to Dog Beach with their dogs stop at various restaurants and cafes and stores while they’re here. And, of course all those businesses suffer, as does ours,” she said.
Donna Frye, program manager for the Center for Marine Conservation, welcomes the increased monitoring. She believes it will provide good information on the sources of contamination, and also help county health officials pinpoint where to spend their limited funds.
“Ultimately the goal is not to see any signs on the beach. Except ‘Come swimming,'” she said.
Frye supports the testing not only as an environmentalist, but as a businesswoman as well. As the co-owner of Harry’s Surf Shop in Pacific Beach, she noted the damage pollution can do has far-reaching effects.
Frye said it’s not the testing itself that closes the beaches down, but the already existing pollution the testing finds. The consequences of ignoring the pollution could be even worse, though.
“It would be outrageous to allow people to not have the additional protection of water monitoring,” she said. “I can always sell a surfboard. I can always find somebody to buy a T-shirt. But it’s much more difficult when people are getting chronically sick. What is the cost of that? If people are too sick to work, what does that cost us economically?”
Frye also noted that with another environmental law currently being debated in the state Senate, water pollution could be greatly reduced.
AB-511, also sponsored by Wayne, lays out protocols and procedures for looking for and cleaning up the contamination at the source.