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The same is true of the mouth of the Santa Ana River in Huntington Beach, another popular spot for parents and their kids. The Santa Ana River is the largest stream system in Southern California, winding its way through four counties and carrying to its mouth whatever has fallen or been thrown in along the way. It is permanently posted with a warning sign and has been closed twice in the past 22 months. As at all flowing creek mouths in the county, a permanent yellow-and-black-striped warning sign is posted at the mouth of the river. Lifeguards typically warn people out of the water, but when the lifeguard truck drives off, people often go right back in.
It's not just Orange County's waterfront playgrounds that are affected, of course. Baby beaches up and down the Southern California coast share the same disgusting conditions. According to James Alamillo, who publishes Heal the Bay's Beach Report Card, poor water quality is also likely at Mother's Beach and Alamitos Bay in Long Beach, Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro, Mother's Beach in Marina Del Rey, and Ventura's Kiddie Beach. Several beaches in Mission Bay in San Diego—and even Avalon Beach on Santa Catalina Island—ought to be red-flagged on any parental map.
"The common thread that links all these swimming-pool-like atmospheres is low tidal circulation," Alamillo said.
Quantifiable evidence of the dangers of swimming in waters contaminated by urban runoff is sketchy—mainly because it hasn't been studied much. A 1996 effort by the University of Southern California and the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Project interviewed more than 15,000 swimmers and analyzed water samples at three beaches near flowing storm drains. The findings were clear: swimming near flowing storm drains greatly increased the risk of getting sick.
But the impact on young children swimming at baby beaches has barely been considered at all. OCHCA relies entirely on the anecdotal evidence of parents who have filed reports when their children became ill after swimming at a baby beach. During the past few years, only a few such cases have been reported. In August 2000, two children and two adults who swam at Newport Dunes called in with complaints of diarrhea and eye infections. A few months before, a 13-month-old playing in waters at Huntington Harbour's Mother's Beach contracted a cough, fever and thick, green, nasal discharge. In October 1999, a 10-year-old had complaints of blisters and a possible staph infection after swimming at the 18th Street beach in Newport Bay.
But such passive reporting is of little value. It depends on the perception and reaction of the people who have become ill after swimming in the ocean, whether they suspect their illnesses are related to their contact with the water and report it to OCHCA. Often, people who get sick after a long day at the beach are just as apt to blame it on the bologna sandwich as the shimmering tide pool where they frolicked. With kids, it's even subtler. Maybe they got too much sun. Or got too cold. Or missed a nap. Mothers running through their mental databases of causes rarely settle on the water, which they figure is safe. After all, they took their kids to a baby beach.
Some symptoms are subtler than a stomachache or meningitis. There's the case of Kayla, a four-year-old who went swimming in Newport Bay last summer. She emerged from the water itching so badly her legs bled. "I thought at first she was scratching her legs because of the sunscreen," said Laura Mandas, Kayla's mom. "But she doesn't itch like that when she swims other places, so it must have been the water."
So how can you feel safe taking your baby for a dip this summer? First, don't count on government officials to do the job for you. Most of their short-term fixes—like one plan to cork storm drains throughout the summer—"are just pissing in the wind," said LaBedz.
County agencies have invested millions of dollars trying to ameliorate the effects of pollution in children's ocean-swimming areas, particularly from May through October. Several storm drains feature "pillow plugs" or "butterfly valves" that either block or divert urban runoff. But these techniques are inadequate, Baglin claims.
"This archaic, mechanical system of putting the plug in and taking it out is just not satisfactory," he said. "In reality, there are about 30 days of the year when there is rain but about 300 days when people take their kids to these beaches."
In other words, there are a lot of beach days when the drains are not plugged and pollution flows into the water unfettered.
For the time being, LaBedz advises that children keep their faces out of the water and wear earplugs while swimming. Heal the Bay offers an informative Report Card (www.healthebay.org) on pollution levels at beaches from Santa Barbara to San Diego. Though the Report Card grades—updated each Friday—are based on previous weeks' testings, they'll give you a general idea of how good or bad your favorite beach is and where the postings and closures are. By the end of June, Heal the Bay will launch a Report Card that covers all beaches on the California coast.