Bacteria driving away beachgoers

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Bay Area beaches are among the worst in the state according to Testing the Waters 2010, the Natural Resources Defense Council’s 20th annual beach water report.

Out of 452 coastal beaches surveyed, San Francisco had the highest bacteria exceedance rate with 17 percent. While San Mateo County fell in the middle with 10 percent exceedance, its rate increased from 6 percent in 2008, said Leila Monroe, an oceans expert with the environmental group.

“Total monitoring in San Mateo County decreased by 12 percent,” Monroe said. “The frequency of water sampling is used to judge how well a county is doing in testing their waters.”

Rankings are based on water sampling frequency, exceedance of state bacterial standards and number of beach closings or health advisories.

The NRDC is encouraging counties in California to increase the frequency with which they monitor water quality. However, with state cutbacks, San Mateo County no longer has stable funding for recreational beach sampling, Health Services Manager Lorraine Lew said.

“We will do the best we can with the resources we have, but the extent of sampling won’t be at the same level as in past years,” Lew said. “We don’t have the ability to fund cleanup efforts. This is a prime example of what a state budget cut looks like.”

Aquatic Park in San Mateo County saw 117 beach closings or advisory days last year, and Pillar Point followed close behind with 100 closures. Los Angeles is the only county in California with more beach closings than San Mateo.

Beach closings and advisories were issued after water-quality monitoring showed bacteria counts at levels unsafe for humans. Swimming in polluted beach water can lead to various illnesses including respiratory infections, gastrointestinal illnesses, skin rashes and pinkeye.

In general, storm water runoff is the biggest contributor to beach water contamination, but the Oct. 30 Dubai Star oil spill, which dumped up to 800 gallons of oil into San Francisco Bay, is likely responsible for the significant increases in the area last year, Monroe said.

“A big issue is that [San Mateo] is a very urban environment. When it rains, impermeable landscapes like concrete and asphalt cause rainwater to run off into storm drains and waterways, carrying pollution with it,” Monroe said.

In order to reduce the amount of contaminated water flowing into storm drains, the NRDC is promoting green infrastructure techniques.

“Green infrastructure uses vegetation, porous surfaces or retention devices to stop rainwater where it falls and either store it or allow it to soak back into the ground rather than flow to the ocean,” Monroe said. “It’s the best and most cost-effective way to keep beachgoers safe from dangerous pollution in the water.”

shaughey@sfexaminer.com

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