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Dirty Water

The lowdown on San Diego's polluted beaches and bays.

Edited by Thomas K. Arnold

SICK SURFERS weren’t enough. Nor were ominous signs that kept popping up at Imperial Beach, Mission Bay and other beaches, warning of contaminated water. It took an article in National Geographic to bring San Diego’s dirty little secret into the open, to expose the area’s celebrated waterfront—the crown jewel of our tourism industry—as tarnished and unclean.

National Geographic hailed the cleanwater efforts of Councilmember Donna Frye and her surfing-legend husband, Skip, in a story about the sorry state of the nation’s beaches. The article blasted the Point Loma Water Treatment Plant for spewing “180 million gallons a day of partially treated sewage . . . into the ocean” and also noted San Diego storm drains “flush car-drippings such as oil, gas and brake dust, along with a raft of coffee cups, soda bottles and pet excrement, straight into San Diego’s surf breaks every time it rains.” Frye and his fellow surfers, according to the article, “now routinely suffer a laundry list of water-borne ailments, from sinus and ear infections to more serious illnesses like hepatitis.”

Watchdog group Heal the Bay reports more than a quarter of local beaches routinely get poor grades for water quality whenever it rains. What’s more, a total of 115,000 gallons of raw sewage were dumped into the waters off San Diego in 13 major spills between April 2005 and March 2006—on top of the partially treated refuse released into local waters on a regular basis. If all that weren’t enough, a study released this year found dissolved-copper contamination is widespread in San Diego marinas. In the Shelter Island Yacht Basin, it’s so bad it’s killing mussel embryos.

The dirtiest beach in the county is Imperial Beach, which two years ago was branded the most polluted beach in California by Heal the Bay. Ben McCue, coast conservation program manager with Wild Coast, another environmental watchdog group, says last year I.B. was closed 166 days because of the continued flow into the ocean of untreated sewage from the Tia Juana River. Even on days when the beach isn’t closed, “the water is generally not good,” McCue says. This summer, surfers noticed “a sweet chemical smell coming from the south.” The water is currently being analyzed by county health authorities. In the meantime, beach attendance is way down. “I’ve talked to surf shop owners who used to sell a board a day,” McCue says. “Now, they’re lucky if they sell one a month.”

Imperial Beach is hardly alone. Silver Strand last year was closed 67 days; Coronado “all the way up to North Beach,” 55 days. Even La Jolla Cove was off-limits to swimmers for four days in June. Several other beaches were closed for a few days, although McCue notes closures are only instituted in extreme cases. More often, signs are posted warning of “bacterial exceedance” but leaving it up to the public’s discretion whether to go into the water or not. San Diego beaches that routinely get low marks for water quality, even in dry periods, include Sunset Cliffs (dubbed “North Garbage” by locals), P.B. Point in Pacific Beach, San Dieguito River Beach in Del Mar, Cardiff State Beach (at San Elijo Lagoon) and several Oceanside beaches, including Buccaneer Beach at Loma Alta Creek and the San Luis Rey River outlet.

Then there’s Mission Bay, which McCue calls “a fiasco.” Last year, the bay was closed 15 days, with warning signs posted on 93 other days. At the height of this summer’s tourist season, between July 6 and 25, warning signs went up after tests showed a widespread pattern of elevated bacteria levels. Portions of the bay were subsequently closed for four days due to reports of a sewage spill.

What can be done? Short of plugging up all storm drains and sewage pipes, or a massive infrastructure investment in rerouting them to a treatment facility, very little. McCue says efforts are now focused on implementing “rapid-indicator tests” so the public at least can be warned earlier when bacteria levels are in the danger zone.

“Current testing takes 24 hours, so for those 24 hours the beach isn’t closed, and all you can tell people is ‘You surfed in contaminated water yesterday,’ ” he says.

In the meantime, surfers at the county’s southernmost beaches have taken matters into their own hands —or rather, noses. “They do the smell test,” McCue says. “They smell the water, and if it smells okay, they go in. It’s not very scientific, but it’s something.”

Roll Over, Barney

THE PRESCHOOL VIDEO MARKET is booming, with Barney having opened the door for such toddler heroes as Dora theHeidi Heller Niehart and Penny L. Cohen Explorer and Disney’s Little Einsteins series. Two San Diego moms have launched their own video company and have released three DVDs. Tot-a-Doodle-Do! Animals, Tot-a-Doodle-Do! School and Tot-a-Doodle-Do! Transportation are 30-minute videos featuring a real-life animal trainer, teacher and airline pilot who teach kids about their jobs and are joined by a group of kids who engage in activities like singing songs and making crafts.

The Tot-a-Doodle-Do! line is the brainchild of San Diego moms Heidi Heller Niehart, a 15-year veteran of the public relations, marketing and event-planning business, and Penny L. Cohen, a speech/language pathologist in La Jolla who uses music, arts and crafts and dramatics in her therapy.

“When I was pregnant with my first child, I started to look at what type of children’s programming was available,” Niehart says. “I didn’t see anything that provided interactive, educational entertainment for parent and child. I wanted to create something that wasn’t a plop-your-child-on-the-coach program.”

Three children later (now 5, 3 and 2), Niehart approached Cohen, one of her best friends, and asked if she’d like to join her in creating a children’s show with educational value.

“So now together,” she says, “we have set out to make Tot-a-Doodle-Do! a household name among families with preschool and early elementary school children.”

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