Water Quality in San Diego

In Features, Latest News by Joe Carlisle

The fishy stench of the brown ocean fills the air. Surfers are itching and scratching to get back in the water after a hiatus due to a recent rainstorm. However, the thought they could get severely sick, or even lose a limb, lingers heavy on their minds as they watch perfect brown waves peel off the reef from the parking lot.

After a substantial rainstorm, the San Diego County Department of Environmental Health releases a statement online that, “advise[s] against ocean water contact for 72 hours following significant rainfall due to elevated bacteria levels – especially near drainpipes, harbors and river mouths”

So what does that mean for the students of Point Loma Nazarene University? We are risking life and limb every time we surf after a rainstorm.

Sunset Cliffs might seem like a safe place to surf and swim after a rainstorm, because of the lack of concentrated buildings and nature around our school, but the high open bluffs are a deceiving visual pleasure that come along with a hidden set of perils looming just over the rise. San Diego is known for being a port city with heavy industry, large-scale military presence, and toxic shipyards.

Point Loma treats 175 million gallons of sewage each day and uses a 50-year old pipe to dump the remaining run-off four and a half miles offshore. The discharge receives a primary treating, which is the removal of solids and some chlorine to treat the sewage that is regurgitated in front of our school.  

Point Loma Nazarene University is close to both the San Diego River, which flows out of Ocean Beach and has suffered decades of contamination, and the Tijuana River; we are exposed to numerous amounts of bacteria spewing from those river mouths. When it rains, storm water mixed with sewage, uncollected trash, and dirt rushes into the ocean causing soupy brown waters that are clearly visible and can be easily smelled from the cliffs. San Diego is one of the last major cities to update to secondary treatment of sewage. Since 1995, the city has lobbied against waivers that allow San Diego to continue delaying a more effective way of treating sewage.

So why are these waters so dangerous to be in?

“San Diego has some of the nations dirtiest waters,” Dr. Cummings said. “Bacteria and viruses get into the storm water from animal waste -think dog poop, horse manure, etc.- and human waste. Our proximity to the Tijuana River creates a plume of even more polluted water from the border that can migrate up San Diego’s coast. The area of Imperial Beach can be particularly bad during storms and surfing there should be avoided until it is safe.”

For students and residents of Point Loma, Dr. Cummings suggests the best way to protect our ocean is to, “Pick up trash, even when it’s not yours. Don’t dump anything where it doesn’t belong. Pick up pet poop and put it in the trash. Participate in volunteer events like ocean cleanups. Attend community forums to discuss the importance of clean streets, clean yards, and clean waters.”

In 2014, Barry Ault, a surfer from Sunset Cliffs, decided to surf right in front of Point Loma Nazarene University after a rain storm. Despite the warnings from the San Diego county Department of Environmental Health explicitly telling surfers to stay out of the water for a minimum of 72 hours, Barry couldn’t resist. He knew the water wasn’t the best quality, but he had been surfing the Cliffs for as long as he could remember and had gotten nothing more than a cough as a consequence of surfing after a rain.

This time it was different, the surf session was normal, avoid opening your eyes and try not to swallow any water, but that wasn’t enough for the bacteria in the water to take action.

His wife, Sally Ault, was out of town that day and got a phone call that night from Barry explaining how it felt like he had the flu. In fact, Barry was experiencing symptoms of his inevitable death from a staph infection.

Sally Ault recalls Barry heading out to surf the cliffs in front of campus for a big swell that had just hit. The only problem was that the first significant rainstorm had just hit San Diego and the runoff was running rampant in the water. Despite the rain, Barry still paddled out to catch some waves.

Sally said, “The bacteria that was in the water that infected him and started a domino effect in his body but it also made another friend that was surfing at that same time, who was really, really good, so of course they were all out.” Sally said, “He got very sick and was antibiotics for two weeks, IV, and it was called Vibrio, this bacteria.  It was such a nasty thing that they had to report it to the CDC.” The doctors then informed Sally that the infection had gotten into his brain and ate away at his brain so much that he would live a limited life not being able to walk, talk, or surf. Sally decided to pull the plug on her husband because she knew he wouldn’t want to live a limited life not being the same person he was before.

“He might be able to speak, he might be able to sit up by himself,” she said, “So my daughter and I said, ‘Stop all the treatments, because that was his wishes.’ He would have been so angry. He didn’t like being as old as he was. He already thought he was losing his surfing abilities so, which he wasn’t. So it took about four days total for the staph and vibrio to kill him.”

Since Barry’s passing, Sally has become an advocate among the Sunset Cliffs community, urging surfers to wait for the ocean to dilute whatever pathogens rains might wash into it.

Run-off is one of San Diego’s major contributor to water pollution. Basically, contamination obeys the laws of gravity- travelling down the watershed along curbs, in storm drains, washes, creeks, rivers, and discharge pipes- all leading to the ocean.

San Diego’s main concern, according to early structural engineers when they set up the drainage system, was to avoid flooding the streets, getting the water off of the streets and into the ocean as soon as possible.

Matt O’Malley of San Diego Coastkeepers said that surfers need to be aware of, “Urban runoff, urban drool is what we call it, and that’s the number one thing that’s got the bacteria issues.” O’Malley dived deeper into what types of pollutants enter the water such as, “Fertilizers to metals and those things are pretty bad for the environment in general,” O’Malley said. “They are toxic in certain amounts and any kind of substance can be toxic but I think that’s most impacting surfers is going to be the bacteria issues and that’s from multiple sources. What I think is the biggest issue is the bacteria associated with human waste like literally human feces and what we’re seeing, in the surfer’s health, studies show that there is human waste bacteria in the ocean and that’s just not when it rains, it’s there in dry weather and wet weather, due to an aging sewer infrastructure.”

O’Malley doesn’t just observe the waters and test for bacteria. O’Malley says, “We do everything, including developing environmental curriculum for San Diego Unified School District. We developed their water base curriculum, so we’re in schools educating folks, we also out there doing the monitoring of our waterways. And me personally, I’m involved in policy and legal advocacy and that includes litigations.  So I will have a suite of lawsuits going at any given time against polluters, keeping people from people.  That could be individual industry or government agency, so it might be the city.  One example is that San Diego used to have a sewage spill a day mentality and used to have it all the time and got pegged as one of the “Most Polluting Cities in the Country” we sued the city of San Diego about 15 years ago about that and ended up reducing sewage spills about 90%.”

Zach Plopper, of the conservation organization, WildCoast, put it another way: “Basically, we have the same technology for managing runoff that the Romans had.”

Most pollutants and pathogens enter the ocean at shared locations near surf breaks, causing hundreds of diseases that are difficult or just simply impossible to test for. Further, the toxic cocktail that results from heavy runoff creates opportunities for pathogens to collaborate and complicate illness. The bacterium, Vibrio, is commonly found in the ocean where warm waters occur. Staphylococcal bacteria naturally exist on human skin and when the two bacteria collaborate in polluted waters, they can occur simultaneously, according to Sally Ault. The American Society of Microbiology, in which testing for pathogenic Vibrio’s tests for the bacterium Vibrio and concluded that surfers are 100 times more likely to contract the two bacteria.

Sally, an advocate of water safety in the Sunset Cliffs community, tells surfers, young and old, “I hope surfers will remember that there will be more surf. Maybe you just don’t have to go out today. If there’s any question, just be smart.”

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