Photo by Jeanne RiceWe figured if anyone in Orange County would be hydrophobic, it'd be Sunny Jiang. A UC Irvine professor of environmental health, science and policy, Jiang studies water quality in Huntington Beach, where she says she's found "human viruses"—the sort the county doesn't test for—"near the mouth of the Santa Ana River." We asked her about the handling of out-of-town guests determined to see the ocean.
If you were hosting a visitor who wanted to go to the beach—actually go in the water—what would you tell them?Photographer: Jeanne RiceOh, you're asking me to make a prediction!Of course. Going in the water is a known risk—like when you're in the street, there's almost always a car that can potentially hit you. But if friends from far away came into town and wanted to experience the beach, I think I would take them. I would read some reports first, and then I might say no, depending on the reports for that day. What sort of report would you look for?Well, I'd take a look at the beach-closure report from the Orange County Health Department. Is that reliable? Well, at least if there's a sewage spill, you'd know. That's it—sewage information? That's it. So you don't have some kind of secret report available only to scientists?No, there's no inside track. If I want to be really careful, I can look at the report from OCSD [the county Sanitation District]. But that's always delayed a few days. But if there's sewage in the water, you're not going out? That's right. But I think many people are risk-takers, and I'm a risk-taker, so I'd probably go out under most conditions. You're a risk-taker?Yes, I am. Living is a risk. Water-quality problems shouldn't limit your life. On the other side of the coin, it's true there are problems, and we should just be aware of them. It would be sad if we had a great resource like the beach that we couldn't use because we were afraid. Do you go to the beach—besides for work, I mean?I surf! Where?By the pier at Huntington Beach. What kind of board do you have?I have a 10-foot longboard. It's custom-made. I bought it second-hand from a guy in San Clemente. That's one of the reasons I got concerned about water quality. And you have a child, right?Yes, a two-year-old daughter. Would you take her out? I guess I'm not that much of a risk-taker.Are you saying there are good times and bad times for going in the water?