Mark Gold writes: Our first major rain of the year was a mixed blessing. For most Angelenos, the rain brought a sense of renewal and a reminder that inexorable desiccation isn't the only state of our Mediterranean climate. The rain brought a sense of hope that our three-year record drought--perhaps California's worst drought in over a millennium according to a recent study from Woods Hole and University of Minnesota researchers--may come to an end some day. But this first storm of the season also reminded us that far too many Angelenos can't drive in the rain, and that many people around LA live in canyons highly susceptible to mudslides, especially after headwaters have been scorched by wildfires.
I have decidedly mixed feelings. For me, the first major rain of the season will always be "the first flush." A good one-and-a-half inches of rain poured down on the LA region over a couple of days--and washed the residue of six months of fast food packaging, accumulated fallout from air pollution, and the waste from millions of dogs and cats into our storm drains. After the first major rain of the year, beaches look like trash dumps, the toxicity of urban runoff increases dramatically with the particles from copper brake pads and zinc in tires, and grades on Heal the Bay's Beach Report Card drop precipitously from the honor roll to flunking out. This week, nearly half the beaches along Santa Monica and San Pedro Bays received Ds and Fs because of high densities of fecal bacteria in the water. No wonder the entire state puts out health warnings for swimmers and surfers to avoid the water for three days after a storm.
This year's first major storm kicked off the first-ever epidemiological study of people who surf in stormwater polluted waters. Fecal bacteria densities increase exponentially after a major rain, but do the health risks of surfing and swimming at those polluted beaches go up as well? And if so, to what degree? Scientists from UC Berkeley, the Southern California Coastal Waters Research Project, and the Surfrider Foundation are now studying water quality and potentially associated adverse health impacts like stomach flu at Tourmaline and Ocean Beach in San Diego. The researchers were able to measure water quality before, during, and after the first major rain, and numerous surfers who braved the nasty conditions to catch a few good waves and were exposed to polluted stormwater runoff agreed to participate in the study. The study will continue through this winter, which hopefully will bring more storms.
As for a sense of renewal and hope? You'd be hard pressed to find a scientist predicting that this year's weak, potential El Niño will be the drought savior California needs so desperately. The state's groundwater basins and reservoirs are so depleted that we'd need a season of rainfall over 150 percent of normal to bring significant drought relief. However, with the State Water Resources Control Board continuing to provide the public with data on water wasting cities and counties, and numerous cities taking serious measures to reduce water consumption, there is reason for hope that we may finally start living a more sustainable water lifestyle. Mayor Eric Garcetti's bold directive to reduce water consumption by 20 percent by 2017 is a great example. I just hope that the recent rain won't wash away chances to pass the water rate increases that are needed to fund improvements in our water management systems in LA and to provide escalating economic disincentives for major water wasters. Talk about a mixed blessing.
Note: The headline is a quotation from a Heal the Bay email in the storm's aftermath promoting a "Nothin' But Sand Beach Cleanup" on January 17. Photo of the beach after the rain at the Pico Kenter storm drain by Frankie Orrala, Angler Outreach Program Manager, Heal the Bay.