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Beaches of Shame

THE NATURAL RESOURCES DEFENSE COUNCIL announced last week that it would sue the Environmental Protection Agency for neglecting a congressional mandate called the BEACH Act, and improve monitoring of the nation’s coastal waters. The news was announced at a press conference at one of Los Angeles County’s dirtiest beaches, Will Rogers, which required camera crews and reporters to traipse a couple hundred feet over the sand to where five surfboards and seven models — surfers, presumably — stood behind a small podium. There was speculation in the crowd that Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who emerged a little after 11 a.m. from a black SUV in the parking lot, wouldn’t be able to handle it. “He’s in one of those nice suits,” muttered one local television news reporter. “He’ll have to have his guys carry him.”

Instead, Villaraigosa wore sneakers and had no problem navigating the sand. But after both the NRDC’s coastal water quality director David Beckman and staff attorney Anjali Jaiswal had addressed the day’s issue, the mayor had little to say beyond reminiscing about his beachgoing childhood. But his presence on the beach was a clear reminder of what politicians and pollsters have learned so many times before: California may be split on gay marriage, the death penalty and whether millionaires should foot the bill for preschoolers. But for a politician, clean water is easy.

In 2000, 64 percent of California’s voters approved a $1.9 billion clean-water initiative that included nearly $40 million for clean beaches; two years later, a $2.6 billion water-and-parks bond designed in part to fund clean-beach projects skated through with more than half the vote, and that same year a $3.4 billion bond measure for coastal protection passed by a similar margin. In 2004, voters in the city of Los Angeles overwhelmingly approved Measure O, a $500 million bond to reengineer the city’s storm-water system to reduce bacteria-laden runoff into the ocean.

“That measure passed by 76 percent,” says David Nahai, chairman of the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board. “Voters have made crystal clear, even in times of fiscal worry, that they are willing to authorize the borrowing of billions of dollars if it means their beaches will be clean and their waters protected. Voters don’t have any ambivalence about the issue.”

Then why do the beaches remain such a toxic mess? And why are so many of the county’s cities suing to keep them that way?

At the same time that the NRDC announced it had filed suit against the EPA over the BEACH Act (in the tradition of forced congressional acronyms, it stands for the Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act of 2000), it also released its 16th annual Guide to Water Quality report, a roundup of beach-water-quality test results in every coastal state, including Great Lakes beaches. The news is bleak: Beach closings and advisories hit a nationwide all-time high in 2005; 200 beaches in 24 states exceeded federal health standards 25 percent of the time. In California alone, beach-closing and advisory days shot up 30 percent. Los Angeles County warned the public away from toxic beaches more than 2,000 times at 49 beaches — as many times as the previous year plus another half.

“The EPA has been asleep at the switch,” Beckman says. “Right now they’re relying on outdated standards.” The EPA water-monitoring standards have not changed in 20 years, and an October 2005 deadline for updating them has now been extended to 2011. At the moment, says Beckman, “they don’t even test for the microbes that make people sick.”

LOS ANGELES COUNTY, ON THE OTHER HAND, does test for the microbes that make people sick, which is one of the reasons the county’s beaches consistently have the worst water quality in the state: According to Heal the Bay’s most recent report card, issued last spring, the county was one of the first to implement “toxic maximum daily load” limits, or TMDLs, as indicators of beach-water quality. But Los Angeles has other problems, too — specifically, a network of storm drains that funnels trash to the ocean. And despite management plans, voter initiatives and signs painted on storm drains reminding residents where the water goes, Southern California has seen almost no improvement in the health of its beaches in the decade and a half since the state began issuing storm-water pollution-control permits. Says Heal the Bay executive director Mark Gold, “We haven’t done anything of any major significance to clean up our beaches from fecal bacterial pollution during storms.”

Attempts have been made over the years to reduce the amount of trash in those storm drains by educating the public and cleaning the streets. But their success has been stymied by the coordinated efforts of some upstream cities to keep clean-water regulations tied up in court. However enthusiastically voters support clean water at the polls, the managers of their cities have different ideas about how much clean water is worth.

“From a certain group of cities we’ve received an incredible amount of resistance,” says Nahai. “Just about everything we’ve done that would protect the coast gets challenged. Millions of dollars have been spent on lawsuits.” In the past few years, the water board has fought court battles with the cities of Los Angeles and Burbank over how much polluted water they can discharge into the Los Angeles River; with Los Angeles County over its storm-water permit; with a varying group of cities united under the banner of the Coalition for Practical Regulation (CPR) over heavy-metal pollution, trash in the San Gabriel River and even sewer discharge.

The CPR cities, which include Signal Hill, Monterey Park and Arcadia, have also threatened to sue the water board over its entire basin plan — the “bible,” says the water board’s public-information officer, Steve Cain, of regional water-quality efforts — despite a long string of resounding defeats: Nearly every challenge to the water board’s authority has been thrown out by the state’s courts.

Still, it was fear of more such legal challenges that prompted the water board at a July 13 meeting to extend by two months the July 15 deadline for setting new rules on dry-weather storm-drain runoff into Santa Monica Bay. Initially, water-board officials blamed the delay on a last-minute pileup of public comments, but Nahai says the board was simply pursuing a sound legal strategy. “The office of chief counsel advised us that there was a technical legal issue that had to be addressed,” he says, declining to elaborate on what that legal issue was. “As a result, we spoke to our lawyers and it seemed clear that it would be reckless not to postpone it. We decided it would be better to lose two months than not prevail in the end. But for a really compelling, almost insurmountable obstacle, we would not have postponed.” The new deadline comes up September 15, and Nahai expects it to stick.

“This issue of coastal protection and water quality is solvable,” he says. “But what we need is first the political will to come together.”