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Captain’s Log: When It Rains, It ... Affects Shoreline Water Quality

A good friend took sick and grew so very weak over the period of a couple of weeks a few years back. He recovered, but it was a slow and worrisome process. Diagnosis was difficult, but the medical consensus was ingestion of excessive bad bacteria, such as fecal bacteria.

My friend was a surfer and just couldn’t resist storm surf. He surfed for several days in a row, during and after major storms as they rolled through our Channel.

Our near-shore waters are especially bad after real gully-washer storm systems. Heavy rains can wash out major concentrations of gunk from our canyons and flood plains. Mother Nature will clean up the mess, as usual, but its best to give her a few weeks before spending more than a modicum of time in the water.

I know better than to tell a surfer not to go out. Heck, I grew up surfing myself, and I know the powerful and compelling call of the surf. I can, however, urge surfers and beach swimmers to spend less time in the water after rains, and to take extra precautions not to swallow water. Also, take a good hot shower soon after coming home, and wash your wetsuit more thoroughly than usual. Some health-conscious folks recommend a mouthwash of hydrogen peroxide to kill bacteria.

Currents and swells move the bacteria all along our coast, so there is no place safe to swim or surf. There are places to especially avoid, however. Beaches near the mouths of flowing streams and creeks will have higher concentrations of gunk.

A study of the current flow direction will give a careful observer a clue as to which way (up coast or down coast) the runoff is being carried. Head the other way, before hitting the water. Water conditions should improve within a week or so. As the season progresses and we get more rain rinsing the land, less bacteria should wash out with each rain.

Where does all of the bacteria come from? Well, from us, of course! Actually, the answer is extremely complex and involves serious social issues. A man I have a lot of respect for volunteered to be part of a task force who took soil samples for bacteria content analysis. They sampled various areas, but mostly worked the creek beds in town, because it was already known that these were the major contributors of bacteria. They found high bacteria counts in some areas where there were more pets than in other areas, and also some places where it was obvious that residents were tossing bad stuff over their fences into the creeks.

But the highest concentrations of fecal bacteria came from the vicinity of homeless camps. That is an extremely difficult social problem to deal with, and I won’t attempt to do so. For now, just be cognizant of questionable water quality — until Mother Nature cleans house.

— Capt. David Bacon operates WaveWalker Charters and is president of SOFTIN Inc., a nonprofit organization providing seafaring opportunities for those in need. Visit softininc.blogspot.com to learn more about the organization and how you can help. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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