Until recently, California did not have mandatory testing programs for its coastal waters. Monitoring and public notification were left up to local agencies, and standards and testing procedures varied widely throughout the state. Some Bay Area counties did little, if any, monitoring. Others -- namely San Francisco and San Mateo -- did monitor their beaches, many of which were heavily used and subject to contamination by sewage.
Sewage is frequently the cause of contaminated beachwater. The problem is made worse in cities -- like San Francisco -- that have combined sewer systems, in which both rainwater and sewage flow through the same pipes. When rainfall is heavy, the pipes can overflow, and untreated sewage winds up in local waterways. Sewage overflows also cause many beach advisories in San Mateo. Given the prevalence of sewage problems, it's not surprising that increased monitoring has led to more closings and advisories. Better monitoring is finally beginning to reveal the true dimension of our region's beachwater pollution problem.
In San Francisco, engineering controls put in place between 1993 and 1998 have helped improve water quality along the shores, and recent construction projects have reduced the number of sewage overflows. But regular monitoring and notification are critical -- and not just in San Francisco -- so beachgoers can know when the water at Bay Area beaches poses threats to their health. While testing for beachwater pollution is essential, in the end swimmers won't be adequately protected unless the sources of pollution are cleaned up.
Threats to Health and the Economy
The diseases that swimmers catch from contaminated water include gastroenteritis (the most common), hepatitis, and respiratory illness. Sewage-polluted water can also cause giardiasis, amoebic dysentery, skin rashes, and pink eye; E. coli bacteria can give swimmers infections. One study found an increased risk of illness -- with symptoms such as fever, chills, diarrhea, and vomiting -- for people swimming near storm drains.
In addition to the direct threats they pose to health, sewage discharges (along with animal waste) act as fertilizers for microscopic plants, some of which can make swimmers sick with illnesses ranging from eye irritation to neurotoxic poisoning.
What's more, sewage is far from the only substance contaminating the Bay Area's waters. Urban and agricultural runoff from creeks and storm drains also carry pesticides, oil, and other contaminants into the ocean.
Beach pollution not only harms health, it also has major consequences for California's economy, which relies heavily on coastal tourism. Tourism generated $37.6 billion in California in 1997 and 387,530 related jobs, but the industry is highly sensitive to environmental problems. In one survey, conducted by Conde Nast Traveller, a quarter of respondents had changed travel plans because of environmental problems at their intended destinations.