For those who live in coastal Southern California, it’s common knowledge that you’re supposed to wait 72 hours after rainfall before jumping back in the ocean.
But it’s also common knowledge that if the waves are going off, someone is going to make like Eddie and go — come hell or high (sewage-infused) water.
In 2006, surfer Chris Schumacher paddled out after a rainstorm in Imperial Beach, San Diego. The water was a sludgy brown, but the barrel was too tempting to resist. Imperial Beach is unique in San Diego due to its proximity to the Tijuana river estuary. Surfing near an estuary means that you’re likely to catch waves infused with raw sewage, especially after a rainstorm when all the sediment is freely floating around.
But Schumacher paddled out anyway, and the next day he woke up with flu-like symptoms, a raging fever, and one eye that wouldn’t open. After being rushed to the hospital, Schumacher had to undergo multiple surgeries to try and find the source of the infection. He remained hospitalized for months, nearly losing an eye and his life while battling a deadly infection in his eye socket. After 18 months on heavy antibiotics, Schumacher pulled through.
As you’ve probably already guessed, water pollution was responsible. Although the runoff from the Tijuana river caused a near-death experience, it turns out that regular water pollution in Southern California is bad news for everyone.
What Water Pollution Has To Do With Surfers
The Surfrider Foundation recently partnered with scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health and the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project to measure the health risks of urban runoff at public beaches and the relationship between water quality and illnesses.
Surfers are most at risk for contracting waterborne illnesses. Not only do surfers spend more time in the ocean than other beach-goers, they also ingest more seawater and spend more time totally submerged in the water, which drastically increases their chances of getting sick.
Researchers took water samples from Ocean Beach and Tourmaline Beach in San Diego. These spots are close to the San Diego River and Tourmaline Creek, respectively, and they are popular year-round surf spots.
During rain events, the study showed that Norovirus was detected in 96% of the samples from the San Diego River and 72% from Tourmaline Creek.
There was also a significant link between water quality and illness during wet weather. Water quality was measured by fecal indicator bacteria (FIB) — or, in unscientific terms, how many turds were floating around in the ocean.
Each gram of human poop contains approximately 100 billion bacteria. FIB levels were significantly higher during wet weather, and illness rates were highest when surfers hit the waves during the rain and the first day afterwards. Illness rates went down each day following wet weather, with FIB rates declining back to normal levels after three days.
The study has prompted local, regional, and state policy managers to evaluate whether changes need to be made to either beach quality standards or public health notifications. San Diego city officials will continue to look into why San Diego River and Tourmaline Creek are (literally) so shitty. The next step will be identifying the most effective way to reduce levels of fecal pollution within those water supplies.
What Causes Water Pollution?
Raw sewage, interconnecting storm and sewer drains, and people pooping in the river are all believed to contribute toward toxic FIB levels. But fecal matter isn’t the only nasty thing lurking in the ocean. We dump a huge amount of toxins in the ocean, ranging from pesticides to nuclear waste. In fact, over 180 million tons of toxic waste is dumped in the ocean every year.
How You Can Help
Green Future spoke to Rick Wilson, Senior Staff Scientist with the Surfrider Foundation, to find out more about water pollution and how surfers can stay safe in the water.
"In addition to avoiding ocean-related recreation activities up to 72 hours after a rain event, the public can also avoid swimming or surfing in front of flowing storm drains or river mouths," says Wilson.
But if you think you can paddle out in order to forget about this horrible election, think again. Surfers need to be politically proactive to ensure that their beaches remain protected.
"Surfers and ocean recreation enthusiasts can also support funding for the EPA BEACH Act, which works to protect our nation's public health by monitoring ocean pollution at our most popular beaches. The BEACH Act program supports state and local beach water quality monitoring and public notification programs at beaches across the country," Wilson said. He added:
"Despite the public health and economic benefits, the EPA BEACH Act grant program is on the federal budget chopping block. Congress currently holds the power in determining whether or not this program remains funded, so we need to elect champions for clean water that will ensure that clean water and public health is a priority for the federal budget."
Wilson advises that the best way to do something about ocean pollution is to get involved. "To help improve water quality, the public can get involved by joining Surfrider as a member, finding their nearest Surfrider chapter, or getting involved in Surfrider's clean water initiatives and programs such as the Blue Water Task Force program or Ocean Friendly Gardens program," he said.
Don't forget to vote on Election Day! Donald Trump wants to abolish the EPA. For anyone who loves the water, a Trump presidency would be an environmental catastrophe — especially when our waters need our help the most.