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EL NINO BROUGHT FLOOD OF BEACH CLOSURES; BEACH SEWAGE POLLUTION RISK RISES.

Byline: Douglas Haberman Staff Writer

El Nino rains nearly quadrupled beach closures and health advisories last year in Los Angeles County, demonstrating how sewage and storm water drainage systems fail to control pollution at California's fabled beaches, a new report said Thursday.

And, health officials should have issued even more public warnings about the risks of swimming in the ocean after rainstorms, said officials of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a national environmental group that issued the study.

``You can't blame this on El Nino,'' said Alex Helperin, NRDC staff attorney in Los Angeles. ``El Nino just made it that much clearer that we have problems that we're not addressing.''

Beach closures and advisories jumped in the county, from 39 in 1997 to 147 in 1998, according to the report, which was the group's ninth annual survey of contamination at tourist beaches nationwide.

Aging sewer systems are part of the problem, Helperin said. The city of Los Angeles has more than 6,500 miles of sewer pipes, more than half of them at least 50 years old, he said.

``When rains infiltrate the pipes, they overwhelm this antiquated system,'' leading to leaks and backups that get in the storm drain system and end up in the Pacific,'' Helperin said.

``Every city should be checking its sewage lines and making sure they're safe,'' he said.

Jim Langley, assistant director of the city Bureau of Sanitation, said the city is spending hundreds of millions of dollars for new sewer lines in response to an order from the Regional Water Quality Control Board to make improvements where El Nino rains caused serious damage, including South Central Los Angeles and the Eagle Rock-East Los Angeles area.

Another El Nino can happen at any time and ``we're trying to stay ahead of it,'' he said.

Langley said the age of sewer pipes is less important than their location and the material they are made of. He said in some locations there is hydrogen sulfide gas, which turns into sulfuric acid and can eat away concrete.

Public education is another way to reduce the problem, the NRDC said. People need to clean up after their dogs, for example, so canine droppings don't get washed out to the ocean in storms, Helperin said.

The NRDC report, ``Testing the Waters 1999: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches,'' said county health officials should have informed the public more often last year of the potential for adverse health effects from swimming in the ocean after rainstorms.

Studies have long shown that rainfall washes harmful bacteria from human and animal waste into the ocean.

A study released by the Santa Monica Bay Restoration project in 1996 found an increased risk of colds, fever, chills, sore throats, diarrhea and other symptoms of illness in people swimming near storm drains as compared to those swimming farther away.

The county Department of Health Services issues general advisories applying to the entire county coastline whenever there is a significant amount of rainfall, generally one-tenth of an inch of rain at the Civic Center downtown.

The NRDC report contends that there could have been 65 more days when a general advisory was in effect in 1998, in addition to the 24 days covered by eight general advisories.

But a county health official said the department did its job.

Because rain can fall one day, stop the next, then fall again the following day, the department issues a new beach advisory only when it hasn't rained within the week, said Richard Kebabjian, chief of the recreational health program for the county Department of Health Services.

``Every time it rained significantly in 1998, we put out an advisory if it hadn't rained within a week before,'' he said.

The department samples ocean water from 38 locations along the coast every week and receives data collected by the city from 20 other sites. When bacteria counts are high enough to indicate a potential problem, warning signs are posted at the beach near storm drains and 50 yards and 100 yards in either direction, Kebabjian said.

``We usually tell people to stay away from flowing storm drains and stay 100 yards away from piers,'' he said.

New regulations mandated by a 1997 state law governing the way counties monitor ocean water bacteria counts, and notify the public about them when they're high, are expected to go into effect by August, said Mark Gold, executive director of Heal the Bay.

Each county will have to set up an 800 number beachgoers can call for a report on water quality at beaches, he said.

``California is far ahead of the rest of the nation in regards to protecting swimmers,'' said Gold.

Cities and counties can take other steps to limit the amount of pollution making its way to the ocean, Helperin said.

They can require small greenbelts around new development or catch basins in the corner of parking lots, he said, both of which help trap polluted storm water runoff.

CAPTION(S):

2 Photos

Photo: (1--Color) Alex Helperin, attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, at the storm drain at the mouth of Santa Monica Canyon at Will Rogers State Beach. The council wants regular water quality testing.

(2) A warning sign is posted near the Santa Monica Canyon storm drain outlet at Will Rogers State Beach.

Michael Owen Baker/Staff Photographer
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Date:Jul 16, 1999
Words:892
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