Closing Surf City

These are tough times for Surf City, USA. The crashing waves and golden sands of Huntington Beach, once immortalized by the Beach Boys as the epitome of southern Californian living, has been stricken by a mysterious affliction.

The California beaches of surfing legend are now off limits because of uncontrollable solid waste pollution.© Guy Motil/Surfrider Foundation

Since last summer, the water has shown exceptionally high levels of enterococcus bacteria—a polite way of saying it is infested with human feces—keeping the surfers, the perfectly toned beach lovers and just about everyone else well away. All eight miles of the fabled stretch of Pacific shoreline have been deemed off limits.

And Surf City is far from the only oceanside paradise turned bad. Surfrider Beach in Malibu, another fabled spot for southern California's favorite recreation, has become so riddled with E. coli bacteria and other viruses that it has been all but abandoned.

One might not expect the ocean immediately adjacent to Los Angeles to be a paragon of cleanliness, but the risk of infection stretches beyond San Diego to the Mexican border. The reason, it seems, is not faulty sewage treatment or factory effluent. The Surf City contamination is almost certainly the result of urban run-off flushed into storm drains.

In a city built on concrete, the storm drains fill with everything from motor oil to dog excrement, sweeping away garden pesticides and chemicals used to kill algae in swimming pools and hot tubs. The wire-mesh grilles at the mouth of the city's drainage creeks frequently fill with beer cans, shopping carts, car mufflers, push-chairs and dead animals.

Contamination levels have swelled twelve-fold in the past 27 years, according to the Los Angeles Times. The LA area now pumps out around one trillion gallons of bacteria-infested water each year. According to a 1995 study, one in 25 people who swam near a storm drain came down with a gastro-intestinal illness.

Some local authorities are working to remedy the situation. The city of Santa Monica now diverts its storm drains into the sewage system and is building an $8 million treatment plant. But because drains are filled with runoff in the fall and winter, this limited solution only works in dry summer months.

“It's just a band-aid,” John Hoskinson of Surfrider Foundation says. “We've built and built with minimal planning restrictions and this is the result.” Surfrider would instead like to see strict building codes that require new developments to retain 70 percent of their storm runoff.