Surfers faced a dilemma Monday morning as one of the season’s best winter swells brought pumping waves to Southern California: Stay out of the water, where recent rainfall brought urban runoff and risk getting sick, or keep dry on shore and drool as the perfect, peaky waves rolled in.
For surfers from Malibu down to San Clemente and beyond, the swell offered a small window to score an epic surf session before the next rain moves in this week, sending more debris and run-off spilling into the ocean.
The decision becomes a risk-reward calculation. Has enough time passed since the last storm sent bacteria and trash roaring down waterways, flushing into the ocean like an overflowing toilet? And how can the chances of contracting illness from ingesting dirty water be decreased, in order to score a few fun waves?
The swell that showed up Monday is expected to linger into today, prompting the National Weather Service to issue a high surf advisory for Orange County and a beach hazard statement for Los Angeles County. The waves, expected to be up to 7-foot in select stretches of Orange County and in the 3- to 6-foot range in Los Angeles County, will start to subside early today.
In areas of Laguna Beach and parts of Dana Point, the gamble came with an even higher risk. On Monday morning, ocean closure signs were still posted after a Nov. 27 sewage spill flushed more than a million gallons of raw sewage from a Laguna Beach golf course into the ocean.
Though the Orange County Health Care Agency lifted the ocean closure by noon Monday, many surfers who showed up earlier at Salt Creek to score surf shrugged off the warnings.
After his Salt Creek surf session, Laguna Beach resident Tim Crays walked in his wetsuit past a bright yellow sign reading, in red lettering, “Keep Out Sewage Contaminated Water” and “ocean water may cause illness.”
Crays was armed with ear plugs and planned on doing a sinus flush with a Neti pot when he got home. “I won’t be sick tomorrow,” said Crays, who has been surfing for 45 years.
A rain advisory was still in place for Orange County beaches as of Monday, even though the last rain ceased Friday. Usually, rain advisories are in place for 72 hours, but the season’s first rain can be especially bad, so warnings can last longer.
“The surf was so good, it was worth the risk,” Andrew Phalen, of Mission Viejo, said after his morning surf.
Ryan Franz, of Dana Point, said he was sure the swell had pushed the raw sewage and urban runoff away from the area. “Our time is the most precious thing,” said the father of four. “When you get a hall pass, you gotta go.”
Surfrider Blue Water Task Force volunteer Pamela Shader Conti stopped by Doheny State Beach in Dana Point over the weekend, after the rain, to check out the dirty water that gushed from San Juan Creek into the ocean after a berm broke, and noticed people out in the water waiting for waves.
“I just thought how uneducated the population is about the risk of storm water after these heavy rains,” she said. “They just don’t know or they don’t believe how sick they can get from it.”
Conti, environmental director for The Pegasus School in Huntington Beach, takes regular samples and enlists students to do the same at beaches dotting the coast. Based on years of sampling, she said, she knows how bad it can be right after the “first flush” of the year.
“In my opinion, people should not risk going in the water after we’ve had that much rain, for a minimum of 72 hours, but I would say more like a week because it’s our first flush,” she said. “Not until we get our numbers down and figure out how much bacteria is still circulating.”
The state standard for MPN, or Most Probable Number, of bacteria in 100 milliliters of water that is deemed unsafe to exceed is 104. Before the rain Nov. 4, the levels already were high in San Juan Creek, at 2,041. After the storm, but before the berm broke, those levels skyrocketed to 24,196.
“After the first rain, all of the rain brought pollution into that body of water and increased the bacteria levels by 10 times. But it was still sitting there because the berm wasn’t broken,” Conti said. “Once it broke, all that bacteria went into our surf zone.”
OC Lifeguards Chief Jason Young said his staff was warning people at Salt Creek about the ocean closure, before it was lifted, but didn’t have the manpower to enforce the closure.
“We do have some noncomplainant surfers out there who I guess want to take the risk,” he said. “There’s multiple access points for Salt Creek and a very strong surfing crowd that likes to surf no matter what.”
For lifeguards, not only does the risk of rescue put them in danger when a strong swell hits, but potentially contaminated water poses additional health concerns.
“It’s absolutely high risk for us,” Young said. “But we are constantly at risk … we know we are putting ourselves at extra risk. We try to be as preventative as possible to protect our safety.”
Marine biologist Nancy Caruso, who is working on an abalone restoration project with her nonprofit Get Inspired, canceled a dive trip to survey for baby abalone because of the sewage spill last week, and decided to keep out of the water even though the restrictions were lifted Monday.
“I can’t go in the ocean for risk of my health,” she posted on social media. “What about our marine life? What about the fish that people catch and eat?”
In Los Angeles County, the rain advisory was lifted early Monday morning, though the Los Angeles County Public Health website stated “ocean water quality testing results are not yet available following the rain advisory.
“Beach users are cautioned to avoid water contact near flowing creeks and storm drains,” it read Monday.
Environmentalists warned that risks may linger even longer than posted advisories state.
“It’s never worth the risk in my opinion,” said Heal the Bay water-quality scientist Luke Ginger. “I don’t want to scare anyone from going to the beach. If they want to hang out and stay on the sand, that’s good, but I would say stay out of the water.”
Ginger and a group from Heal the Bay, which publishes an annual beach water quality report, did a clean-up in Santa Monica last week after the first round of storms hit.
“All of the garbage accumulated over the summer washed up on the beach,” he said. “We were just trying to get as much as we could.”
Topanga State Beach, where a storm drain flows into the ocean, drew a handful of surfers as Monday’s swell hit. Storm drain inlets should be avoided at all times of the year and especially after it rains, Ginger said. Surfers should stay at least 300 yards down or up coast from drains, he said.
If people do need to get in the water, he advises making sure they don’t have cuts on their bodies before going in and showering immediately after they get out.
“The standard warning is three days. There’s some research that suggests under some circumstances there can be harmful conditions after rain events that can last as long as 10 days,” he said. “If people want to be extra safe, they can certainly wait a few more days.”