Friday, October 31, 2008

Beach water quality testing in jeopardy


Surfers, swimmers and beachgoers have long enjoyed the benefits of water quality monitoring at Santa Barbara County’s most popular beaches, getting the heads-up when bacteria levels hit unhealthy levels.
That warning system came into jeopardy recently, when both the state and county cut funding for the testing program due to budget shortfalls.
But with the help of a local nonprofit organization and the city of Santa Barbara, data on water quality at local beaches will remain available to beachgoers, at least through the winter.

“We want them to have that information so they can make smart decisions about when to go in the water and when to stay out,” said Kira Redmond, executive director of Santa Barbara Channelkeeper.
The organization is pitching in thousands of dollars to ensure beach monitoring continues at 12 local beaches.
Santa Barbara city officials also made a decision to pick up the slack by testing at main creek discharge areas — Arroyo Burro Beach, Leadbetter Beach, and East Beach at Mission and Sycamore creeks.
“It’s additional work for us, but we felt that it was providing important information to the community so we shifted a few things around,” said City Creeks Manager Cameron Benson.
County officials, facing a major budget crisis, cut their funding for winter testing during their latest budget cycle. Gov. Schwarzenegger recently dropped state funding for monitoring during spring, summer and fall months, although the state’s Water Resources Control Board is looking into alternate funding sources.
As a result, the county’s Environmental Health Services stopped taking water samples at local beaches for the first time in more than a decade. Attempts to contact officials involved with the monitoring program yesterday were not successful.
A statement on the county’s website notes the weekly testing is being discontinued due to a loss of funding. The latest results date back to Oct. 6.
Since 1996, the county has been testing along its coastline at the most frequented locations — particularly those near creeks or outfall areas. In recent years, specialists have been taking samples at 20 beaches from Jalama to Rincon.
State law has required testing during the summer for more than a decade — AB411 passed in 1997 and mandated that beaches with storm drains that are visited by more than 50,000 people per year be monitored from April to October.
But the county went above and beyond, testing during winter months when better waves draw more surfers and inclement weather results in more runoff.
So when Redmond learned that the county was cutting their funding for the winter, she said Channelkeeper began planning to step in and cover testing from November to March.
“It’s not real smart to be cutting it when there’s more rain and more people in the water,” she said.
The second blow came when Gov. Schwarzenegger withdrew approximately $1 million used by the state Department of Public Health as grant money for local agencies to support beach testing.
Redmond is hoping state officials can pull together enough money through other sources to keep the program going through next summer. Channelkeeper has a budget of $23,000, she said, which should cover five months.
“We’re trying to raise money,” Redmond said. “We’re going to do it until the money runs out. We are definitely looking to the ocean-using public to donate to the cause.”
Benson said while the city already conducts weekly and quarterly water quality tests at local creeks and Arroyo Burro Beach, tossing in the additional locations is expected to cost about $5,000. He said the city plans to sample only through the winter months.
While acknowledging the budget shortfall that resulted in the county’s program being cut, County Supervisor Janet Wolf said water quality has always been a top priority for her. She is offering $4,000 from her discretionary fund to support Channelkeeper’s testing efforts.
“It’s important to let surfers and beachgoers know the quality of the water,” she said. “I just think it’s a vital public health matter.”
Her colleague, Supervisor Salud Carbajal, echoed those sentiments, calling anything in the realm of health and public safety a great concern to him.
But the county is in a serious budget crunch, he said, and the state’s budget fiasco is likely to result in more cuts that will have a local impact.
“I think it was unfortunate,” Carbajal said of the necessity to cut the county’s funding, “And now that the state has hit us with the other whammy, we have lost some important services in that area.”
He’s been working with several local nonprofit foundations to increase support for Channelkeeper’s efforts to keep the program alive.
“This is such a public health issue that we need to explore sooner than later how we can address it,” he said. “My antennas are up and I’m looking under every rock and stone.”
The question of whether the state can come up with money for summer months should be answered in less than a week. State officials are meeting on Nov. 4 to consider a proposal to use Proposition 13 bond funds dedicated to improving water quality as a stopgap measure.
Water Board Chairman Tam M. Doduc said in a recent statement that significant progress on preventing and cleaning up beach pollution has been made in recent years and testing has been a key component.
“This will be a decision for the full board, but we are all aware that progress must be backed up with rigorous test results,” Doduc said. “We know there is still the threat of contaminated water and there are still some beaches where there has not been enough progress. That is why testing is so important for the health of swimmers, surfers and young children who splash in the waves.”
Hilary Hauser, executive director of locally based Heal the Ocean, said if that funding comes through, the county will be set for the warm months of 2009.
But the following winter will remain a question mark.
“It’s not just the health of the public, which is huge,” Hauser said. “Surfers are in the water in the winter more than they are in the summer. But also to lose this consistent data is very significant.”
For example, she said, the Environmental Protection Agency uses locally collected data to determine which areas of the ocean and coastline need to be targeted for cleanups.
For now, Channelkeeper and the city’s Creeks Division will head out to the beaches every Monday to take samples. Results should be posted at and possibly at local surf shops and Heal the Bay’s website.
“We will figure out a way to make sure the information gets out there,” Benson said.

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