photo source

Last winter, the Southern California skies went grey with thick churning thunderheads and the heavens unloaded a drenching series of rains that went on in near unbroken succession for months. The most welcome aspect for surfers was the flushing of tons of soil and sand into lineups from Ventura to Imperial Beach, sculpting some of the best sandbar and bottom-contour conditions Californians have seen in years. Understandably California surfers were frothing. The only problem was the storm water pollution.

In coastal California, when rain falls onto an urban landscape it flows through the streets and drainage systems and is flushed into the sea untreated. The very same principle that allows rainwater to carry sand and soil into the lineup also allows for storm drainage systems to carry the discarded detritus and wayward pollutants of mankind. This untreated rainwater, pollutants and all, is known to experts as urban stormwater, and as you can imagine, it’s f-ing filthy.

Allowing the untreated urban run-off into the ocean is like letting your neighbor hose down his driveway, wash the bathroom floor, spray out the bottom of his garbage pails and then dump the dirty water into your pool. It’s bad circumstance, and this winter it made for some seriously disgusting ocean water quality in California.

But it’s a nightmare that, if you ask the experts, we’re stuck with. Moreover, as coastal urban populations continue to mushroom this nightmare become increasingly problematic and damaging to both surfers and the aquatic environment itself. The most apparent answer, i.e. the restructuring of the drainage and sewage systems so urban stormwater is treated before its release, is a complicated one. In fact it’s an option with so many obstacles it really isn’t even on the table for consideration at all.

But why? Well, that’s a murky one, and in an attempt to cut through it, talked with a few surfing environmentalists for their insight regarding the question: Why can’t we surf after it rains?
“Most of the regulators, cities, and even some environmentalists admit that is very unlikely we could devise a system in today’s world that would ensure clean water when it rains on an urban landscape” explains Marco Gonzales, a lawyer working extensively on environmental litigation in conjunction with the Surfrider foundation. “The notion of treating all stormwater as we do sewage is not currently technologically or economically possible.”

According to Mr. Gonzales the lack of treatment feasibility is correlated to the sheer amount of water that flows through the street when it rains. In order to catch and treat runoff the city would need to build underground “stadium sized” reservoirs to capture the dirty water after the first rains. The real key, according to Gonzales, is dealing with dry weather sewage flows and other illegal pollution in each municipality to curb bacteria levels. This is because, while polluted water after a rain is anticipated and only lasts a few days until dispersed by currents, illegal flows can strike without warning making entering the ocean an aquatic Russian roulette.

Mr. Gonzales has been focusing extensively on San Diego over the last few years, and during his career beach closures dropped from 500 per year, to only 86 in 2005, a year with one of the highest recorded rainfalls on record.

How is he doing it? “First, we’re putting liability on the cities to stop the pollution. It used to be that the state was the enforcers of the permit. Now, if the city isn’t enforcing, they’re in trouble,” explained Gonzales. “Second, through our lawsuit defense, we established that discharges of stormwater must meet water quality standards. This means that when a city devises a stormwater plan, and they don’t meet standards, they have to spend more money and more time to come up with alternative solutions. In wet weather, all of the City’s have to work on “source control,” which means things like street sweeping before the first flush, and ensuring that commercial and industrial businesses haven’t left pollutants out where they’d flow into storm drains.”

Gonzales installment of a legal apparatus with financial ramifications is solid, and should be commended, but again we ask, why can’t we surf after it rains?

Some ‘experts’ suggest awareness initiatives. The bottom line is that awareness is not enough. If we focus exclusively on changing people’s minds without legal ramifications, we will never be able to surf after a rain. It’s nave and idealistic to think that we can change water quality by changing attitudes. Bumper sticker policy is not the answer.
To find out what policy can help us answer our question, we queried San Diego Mayoral Candidate Donna Frye. Foremost on her agenda is water monitoring. “The purpose of water monitoring is to protect the public health, but it also allows for the identification of those areas which are the most polluted” explains San Diego Mayoral candidate Donna Frye “This, in turn, allows for the best allocation of limited funds to address the problem.”

With all due respect, our gut feeling is that, at least in the short run, monitoring isn’t going to answer our question: Why can’t we surf after it rains?

Our search for an answer was getting cloudier and cloudier. So, against our better judgement, we asked a state spinmeister for the official State answer to our question.

And it should be noted that they are doing something. The California State Water Board is taking measures to secure water quality with a 2001 Clean Beaches Initiative (CBI) grant that has committed nearly $51 million to help local agencies deal with bacteria counts. Liz Kanter, an information officer with the Water Board informed us that, “constructed projects include 38 urban runoff diversions to the local sewer system, 8 urban runoff treatment facilities, and 12 infrastructure improvement projects.” Where all of this is taking place we are not sure. Unfortunately she also added that, “due to volume and capacity, it is not practical to divert 100% wet weather flow to treatment facilities. However, consideration is being given to how wet weather flow can be successfully captured prior to reaching our rivers and ocean and used for irrigation, groundwater recharge, creation of wetlands, and similar desirable purposes.”

It all sounds good. It is a good spin. But should we feel assured by bureaucrats who don’t surf? These people can claim that solutions are being implemented yet we still surf in dirty water. There is stench permeating our senses after each precipitation. Local municipalities and even many environmental experts believe the task to properly fix the issue to be infeasible logically and economically, yet who would have believed us able to send a man to the moon ten or twenty years before we got there?
Next time you plan on donating to an environmental group ask them what they are doing to make it so you can surf after it rains. Be wary of bumper sticker sound bites. You may want to save your money for an organization that has an aggressive plan to fight contaminated storm water run-off, and if you find such an organization let us know.

Our crusade is summed up perfectly by surf industry mogul Bob Hurley who laments, “stinky bacteria filled water makes me sad. I am not a scientist but it is embarrassing to me that a society as advanced as ours cannot keep our sewage out of the beautiful life giving sea.” Mr. Hurley, we couldn’t agree with you more.