Recently, two children were playing in Santa Barbara’s Sycamore Creek, where it pools up at East Beach, when a well-dressed man got out of his car and shouted, with some urgency, “Get out of there, that creek is polluted!”
The children climbed out and the man drove away, but the incident raised a widely asked question.
Just how clean are the creeks that cut through area beaches? The answer turns out to be a little disturbing.
A review of the ongoing government testing of Sycamore, Mission, Arroyo Burro and other creeks that carry runoff to the Pacific show that all of them are highly contaminated during storm runoff periods and can have adverse human health effects.
“Whenever it rains and there is drainage, every creek fails the state pollution test every time,” said Willie Brummett, director of Santa Barbara County’s Ocean Monitoring Program.
Persistent skin rashes, staph infections, gastronomical problems, lung infections and antibiotic resistance are among the potential dangers to beachgoers.
While the Legislature has been active in setting pollutant standards for waterways, it appears that few watersheds in Santa Barbara — or anywhere else in California — consistently meet these standards.
A billion-dollar state water bond measure cleared the Legislature last week. If approved by voters in November, the bond would, among many other priorities, generate funding for counties and cities to help enforce water quality.
While coastal water contamination seems to be old news to surfers and longtime residents, even they stop short when told that one of the most prevalent of these pollutants is fecal coliform.
DNA studies are under way by Patricia Holden, an environmental microbiology professor UC Santa Barbara’s Bren School of Environmental Science & Management, and the City of Santa Barbara, to determine the exact source of the fecal indicators.
It has not been determined how much of the pollution is from human waste, but leaky sewage pipes and homeless encampments along the creeks are two of the sources listed in government reports. Other pollutants include a bacterium called enterococcus that, if left untreated, can cause urinary tract infections and even meningitis.
“That’s really gross,” was the comment of the day when a random sampling of Santa Barbara’s beachgoers and surfers were told of the fecal findings.
Yet, none of them said it would keep them from enjoying the beach.
“We all know, to some extent that the water is not always good, especially during the winter,” one surfer said. “But, we all love the waves too much to stop coming here.”
Some surfers along the Los Angeles coastline get voluntary vaccinations each year for some of the more serious diseases the pollutants there can cause. Even in Santa Barbara, the term “overhead hepatitis” is a common slang for big winter waves.
Like nearly every other city in California, Santa Barbara is faced with stiff challenges regarding water quality in its creeks.
Discarded trash, oil and hydrocarbon runoff from roads, fecal matter from animals and humans, and nitrogen and fertilizers from lawns and agriculture are a few of the pollutants found daily in the waterways cutting through the city to the sea.
Santa Barbara has mounted an aggressive effort to fight this onslaught of toxins, more so than nearly any city in the state. Measure B, passed in 2000, provided funds for a city program aimed specifically at cleaning up the creeks.
“We not only monitor the creek waters, we are hoping to pinpoint as many of the sources of pollution as possible,” said Jill Zachary, the city’s assistant parks and recreation director and former creek division manager. “The problem wasn’t created overnight and it won’t be resolved overnight. We’re working hard on it.”
Although East Beach and the city’s main beach near Stearns Wharf are often subjected to elevated levels of toxins during the rainy season, the most polluted is Arroyo Burro Creek, which empties into the ocean at Arroyo Burro Beach, also known as Hendry’s Beach, according to state and local reports.
“When it’s not raining, the water quality in most of our creeks is generally decent, but an exception is the lagoon at Arroyo Burro; that one creeps me out,” said Ben Petterly, watershed and marine program director for the nonprofit Santa Barbara Channelkeeper.
The high-profile environmental group recently settled a water-quality lawsuit against the city of Santa Barbara. The city agreed to accelerate its efforts to fix its sewage infrastructure, which Petterly said was responsible for an “excessive number” of sewage spills in the past.
The city was repairing only 1 percent of its sewage pipes per year before the lawsuit.
However, even the recent drought has not reduced all of the water-quality problems. In mid-July, county samplings showed that the beaches where Sycamore and Mission creeks drain into the ocean exceeded the state’s limit on enterococcus toxins by nearly 10 percent. The creeks were put on the county’s warning list as a result. Leadbetter Beach was also added to the list at the end of the month.
Warning signs are posted at every beach that fails to reach state standards, according to Brummett, but there are problems with this system.
First, because of the time it takes to test the water, the signs are often placed on the beaches up to 48 hours after the pollution is detected. But there is an even larger problem.
“When we put the signs up on the ocean side of the beach, they are most often carried away by the high tide or they are used as firewood by the homeless,” he said. “They don’t stay up very long.”
As a result, many of the 50,000 visitors to Santa Barbara’s beaches every year are not warned when water quality goes bad.
“We don’t really know the human health effects of all of this because people usually don’t associate whatever illness they might have with exposure to the water,” Petterly said. “Studies have shown that all of these pollutants can have harmful health effects, we just don’t know the numbers.”
There are websites, including the Channelkeeper site, where people can check local water quality, but there is often a time lag involved, and relatively few people, other than veteran surfers, check these sites before heading for the beach.
Holden’s studies could prove to be a critical part of finding a solution.
“These DNA-based tests are very accurate in allowing us to determine exactly where the fecal matter is coming from, whether it is from humans, dogs, cows or any other animal,” she told Noozhawk.
She added that while much progress has been made in the science of understanding ground pollution — and she gives the Santa Barbara high grades for attempting to deal with the issues — there are inherent problems.
She pointed out the complexity of dealing with everything from ground and surface water to recycled water and wastewater treatment plants.
The state sometimes has been uneven in dealing with this maze of water-quality issues, passing laws that are too broad in some cases and too narrow in others, according to Holden.
She is one of a growing number of scientists who are urging governments to look at all water as a single continuum, rather than as segmented and separate issues, each governed by different laws passed by different state, regional and local entities.
Holden is optimistic, however, that local water-quality issues are being addressed as aggressively as possible.
“The public agencies in Santa Barbara are very forward-thinking and they are trying to do the right thing,” she said. “I’m impressed at how pro-active they are.”
The issues are not likely to go away soon, however, because as Holden, Petterly and others are quick to point out, there are water-quality challenges beyond the creeks and beaches.
Agricultural toxins, oils, heavy metals, pesticides and the flushing of unused pharmaceuticals that make their way into our ground water are just some of the pollutants and problems that must be faced.
— Michael Bowker is a local freelance writer.