Cry Baby Beach

Looking for the most polluted water in OC? Look for a baby beach

The beach is where Southern California gives birth to its summers and perhaps nowhere so obviously as the placid inlets where babies and toddlers—the girls in bathing suits of frilly pastels, the boys in minibaggies—are brought to play in warm, calm water. Their parents look on protectively. They've slathered the kids with Baby Block SPF 3000, packed lunches, paid for parking and put up the umbrellas. The children gurgle and coo as they splash safely in the gentle ripples that lap against the sand. It's a beautiful scene.

But those parents could just as well save themselves the schlep, stay home and simply let their kids splash around in a fully loaded toilet. Beaches designated for children typically feature some of the dirtiest, and most dangerous ocean water in the county.

"If you see something called 'Baby Beach' or 'Mom's Beach' or 'Kid's Beach,' stay the heck away," warned Dr. Mark Gold, executive director of the environmental group Heal the Bay. "Don't be fooled by the names. These beaches seem to have the worst pollution."

That's because the same gentle surf conditions that ensure children won't be swept away also create stagnant waters where pollutants brew. Misguided by maternal-sounding names, parents baste their kids in an unsavory gravy of E. coli, fecal coliform, salmonella, shigella, cryptosporidium, rotavirus and enterovirus, just to name a few. These bacteria, viruses and protozoa can cause gastroenteritis, fever, diarrhea, respiratory infections, rashes and meningitis.

"There is no worse place to take your kid than a mother's beach," said Dr. Gordon LaBedz, a family physician who is also a leader in the Surfrider Foundation and chairman of the Sierra Club's Orange County and Los Angeles chapters. "The problem at these beaches is that you don't have surf and open ocean, but you do have urban runoff and a problem of bacteria in these stagnant pools of water for kids."

It's understandable that parents make this mistake, but there's no excuse for the fact that government agencies steer parents and their children toward these toxic stews. Call the visitors center of just about any beach community, tell them you have a couple of young kids you want to take to the shore, and they'll likely send you to the equivalent of a cesspool.

Until recently, the gunk in ocean swimming waters was barely monitored at all. But testing has been stepped up since the passage of Assembly Bill 411 in 1999, when bacteriological ocean-water-quality standards were added to the California Health and Safety Code. The Orange County Health Care Agency (OCHCA) is among several agencies that test water samples weekly at hundreds of California beach, bay, harbor and ocean locations. Now everybody who goes in the water can get a better idea of what else they're getting into—and it isn't pretty.

The dirtiest baby beach in Orange County is in Dana Point Habor, nestled in a scenic, U-shaped shoreline between a pair of storm drains that dump urban runoff right into the water where children play. These drains are the scariest kind. Because they are underwater pipes, they not only pour undetermined amounts—maybe one gallon, maybe 10,000 gallons—of polluted runoff into the still ocean water every day, but they also go unnoticed by much of the general public. In the past 22 months, county officials have posted warning signs at Dana Point Harbor Baby Beach 25 times. Recently, the warning sign was posted permanently.

Although not technically designated as a "baby beach," Newport Dunes attracts even more children. Its water quality is even worse. It has been posted with warning signs 45 times in 22 months.

The fact that these warnings are posted doesn't mean you'll see them, of course. People have ripped down the wooden signs to use as firewood or vandalized them beyond recognition. There was a time when the OCHCA regularly replaced them; now the agency has erected permanent, fiberboard signs stabilized by PVC posts.

But even when the signs survive, people don't stay out of the water. "People have just become immune to the impact of these signs—signs that are posted more often than not," said Wayne Baglin, a Laguna Beach councilman and board member of the Regional Water Quality Control Board, which has jurisdiction from Laguna Beach to the Mexican border.

The problem isn't even avoided in wealthy Huntington Harbour, where a stretch of strand designated Mother's Beach is near a storm drain, has been posted seven times in 22 months and was closed once during a sewage spill.

Doctors reasonably fear runoff because it typically contains motor oil, pesticides, antifreeze, metals, animal waste and other pollutants. Runoff is, in fact, the primary source of Southern California beach contamination.

Man-made storm drains aren't the only major culprits. The mouth of the naturally formed Aliso Creek in Laguna Beach is notoriously dirty. It has been closed five times in the past 22 months and recently earned a permanent posting. The creek runs approximately 14 miles from the Cleveland National Forest to the beach. But Baglin points out that Aliso Creek is often dry at its source, meaning that for much of the year, the water that flows in the channel is entirely urban runoff. Although not officially designated a baby beach, children like to play at the mouth of Aliso Creek. Four million gallons of water per day, almost none of it natural and none of it filtered, pours directly into the ocean—after coating the kids.

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