Until San Diego improves its wastewater treatment and runoff management strategies, local surfers are risking life and limb for waves
December of 2014 brought four rainstorms to San Diego County, ringing in the monthly precipitation total to almost 4 inches—more than double the average. These storms were accompanied by a stretch of large surf. Intermittent sunny days coincided with prime wind conditions. So, despite a general, county-wide warning to avoid ocean contact for 72 hours after a rain event, surfers all along the coast paddled out. Among them was 71-year-old Barry Ault, a Sunset Cliffs local and former competitor who was known for being extraordinarily fit and passionate about surfing despite his age. In fact, Ault had been surfing throughout December’s patch of wet weather. His wife, Sally, said, “He was having a hard time being 71; he felt 30 years old inside and was surfing circles around guys half his age.”
Ault’s favorite break was located along the south cliffs, which required a longish walk but boasted incredible scenery for a spot that existed at the edge of a Southern California metropolis. The open hills of chaparral may have reassured others who paddled out as well, as “The Cliffs” can appear semi-rural and removed from famous sources of pollution like the Tijuana and San Diego rivers. The conditions for Ault’s session one Saturday during the wet spell were the best of the week, with large waves, clear skies, and calm winds. At home that evening, however, Ault began to experience flu-like symptoms. Sally was out of town, but her husband described his symptoms during a phone conversation. She didn’t push Ault to seek medical attention at that time, she said later, because she didn’t believe he would have made an appointment for what appeared to be a mere seasonal virus. But on Sunday the illness gained strength. Ault experienced vomiting, diarrhea, and tremors. Further, according to Sally, he began to suspect that the illness had something to do with his heart, as 10 months earlier he had a valve replaced to correct a genetic flaw, a condition he’d known about for a couple of decades. The replacement had been incredibly successful until then, and Ault had been in peak physical condition. But now he was concerned. Ault put in a call to his physician, and at noon on Monday, his daughter rushed him to the hospital.
Soon it emerged that other, much younger surfers who shared Ault’s surf session had become stricken by pathogens they’d picked up in the water. One of these was reported to the Centers for Disease Control as vibriosis—a member of the family of bacteria commonly known to cause cholera.
One of the charms of surfing several San Diego breaks is that high bluffs or tracts of open space contribute to an illusion that one isn’t surfing off of California’s second-largest coastal city. This aspect draws a lot of surfers to Sunset Cliffs, but along with the visual pleasures comes a hidden set of perils. Just over the rise from Point Loma, San Diego Bay has suffered a century of heavy industry, large-scale military presence, and toxic shipyards. The city’s Point Loma Wastewater Treatment Plant processes 175 million gallons of wastewater per day and uses a pipe to dump the resulting effluent in an underwater canyon four and a half miles offshore. This waste receives what is termed “primary” treatment—which involves little more than the removal of solids and the use of chlorine. The City of San Diego is the last in the nation to upgrade to the “secondary” level of treatment mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency. In fact, since 1995 the city has successfully lobbied for waivers that allow it to postpone upgrades. Aside from the actual processing and dumping of effluent, however, a separate problem is the state of infrastructure dedicated to simply transporting wastewater. It’s aged and there is no fail-safe method to detect damage. By some estimates, sewage leaks are a daily occurrence. One result is that the San Diego River, which empties directly into some of the most reliable breaks in the city, has suffered decades of contamination—and surfers have suffered right along with it.
Complicating the sources of pollution that one can easily point to and name, there is another, more insidious, emitter of bacteria, viruses, toxins, heavy metals, petroleum products, and pesticides, and this is the surface of America’s finest city itself.
“Runoff is the big one,” said Travis Pritchard of San Diego Coastkeeper, an organization devoted to the problem. “The pathogens that make surfers sick are coming from runoff.”
Contamination obeys gravity—traveling down the watershed along curbs, in storm drains, washes, creeks, rivers, and discharge pipes—until it is released into the ocean. Nearly every outflow of water from land in San Diego County corresponds with surf spots just offshore; think of Del Mar, Cardiff Reef, Ponto. Until recently, the singular goal of runoff management in Southern California has been focused on flood control, in getting water off the city surface and into the ocean as fast as possible. “It’s direct,” said Pritchard. “There is nothing between the street and the ocean besides drains and pipes.”
Zach Plopper, of the conservation organization WildCoast, put it another way: “Basically, we have the same technology for managing runoff that the Romans had.”
The City of San Diego is the last in the nation to upgrade to the “secondary” level of treatment mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency. In fact, since 1995 the city has successfully lobbied for waivers that allow it to postpone upgrades.
Because most pollutants and pathogens are entering the ocean at shared locations near surf breaks, and contact with these contaminants can yield dozens, if not hundreds, of diseases, and testing for the specific viruses or bacteria is either difficult or unavailable, surfers are unlikely to be able to name the exact thing that made them sick, or its specific source. Further, the toxic cocktail that results from heavy runoff creates opportunities for pathogens to collaborate and complicate illness. Vibrio bacteria (of which there are multiple types) occur in the ocean naturally and are associated with warm ocean environments. Staphylococcal bacteria exist naturally on human skin. But infections caused by both are correlated with contaminated water. Vibrio infection and staph infection can occur in the same patient simultaneously. According to a study published by The American Society of Microbiology, in which testing for pathogenic vibrios occurred at Doheny State Beach and Avalon Harbor, surfers showed “a 2-order-of-magnitude” higher exposure rate than average swimmers, meaning they are 100 times more likely to be exposed.
Few of the things that make surfers sick can be seen by the naked eye. Still, rightly or wrongly, surfers often believe they can detect something afoul. After Adam Traubman and his teenaged son Niko went surfing south of Cardiff Reef in the fall of 2015, Traubman said he’d noticed an unnatural-looking brownish-greenish tint to the water. There was a film on the sand. Traubman noticed some kind of dredging project proceeding in the lagoon just east of the beach, too. “I saw the water color,” he said, but they paddled out anyway. “Maybe I’m a bad dad, but we’re water people. That’s what we do.”
Thinking of water pollution, Traubman reasoned that it hadn’t rained in a long time. There’s no real industry in the area either. He attributes what followed to a small insect bite Niko reported on his butt cheek, and something “jacked up” in the water.
They had a fun session that day, and for the next week or so, if Traubman thought about water quality at all, it was in the context of wet weather forecast for later in the fall. Niko noticed something wrong pretty quickly, but he was embarrassed by it; there was a strange boil rising on his butt cheek. The reveal occurred during another father-and-son session along the same stretch of beach. Traubman watched Niko catch a wave, and then on the inside, the teen launched into the air. He came unglued from his board and disappeared behind a wave. Traubman then heard Niko scream in pain. The father paddled in. Niko was on his feet, but he was obviously hurting. Once he pulled his wetsuit down, they could see the boil Niko had been trying to keep to himself. It had burst on impact after that air attempt. The Traubmans drove to the hospital. In the ER, the wound was diagnosed as a staph infection and Niko was rushed into surgery. Traubman watched an attendant extract infected material from his son with what looked like a “melon-ball scooper.”
“I saw the hole in Niko’s butt cheek,” Traubman said. “Whatever was in that water, it ate away at his flesh.”
Niko’s recovery was difficult. The surgery left a “racquetball-sized” hole in his leg. The infection threatened to turn septic. There were return trips to have infected tissue removed and the wound repacked. Niko missed a lot of school and a lot of waves. But the Traubmans can’t finger the specific source of the pathogen, or its route to the ocean.
Staph infections tend to stay with victims throughout their lives, and victims need to take special care of their health. But if the Traubmans want to keep surfing, all they can do to protect themselves going forward is to rely on the old standby—to wait 72 hours after a rain event to go surfing—even though, as Traubman indicated, it hadn’t been raining in this instance. “However you cut it,” he said, “the water is dirty, and it’s affecting lives.”
“The City of San Diego has always been 30 years behind the curve in storm-water control,” said former California state lifeguard Greg Abbott. He has worked on water-quality issues since the 1970s, when lifeguards at Border Field State Park suffered a rash of illnesses due to contamination conveyed by the Tijuana River. At that time, the city didn’t test for bacteria levels in the summer (current test results in the Tijuana River are so high that different methods are required to get an accurate count). So Abbott went to the Regional Water Quality Control Board for data. “We found a correlation between illnesses and periods of high bacteria,” he said. Abbott called in a reporter from The Los Angeles Times. After that reporting came out, the state permanently shut down lifeguard service at Border Field State Park. But this was no consolation, as dozens of swimmers have drowned in the area since then. Even though an international wastewater-treatment facility was built to process sewage and runoff that originates in Tijuana, because of overflows, the Tijuana River mouth and Imperial Beach are still among the most contaminated coastal zones in the state. The beaches are closed due to contamination more than a third of the year, and illnesses continue to occur. During an “epic” session in November 2006, surfer Chris Schumacher contracted a sinus infection in the waters off Imperial Beach. The infection was so potent that removal of flesh from his sinuses, in order to fight its advance, actually threatened Schumacher’s eyesight. And the young surfer remained in the hospital for three months.
After his lifeguarding career, Abbott took a position as a park ecologist at Border Field State Park. One of the successes in ecological restoration there was a “sediment basin”—essentially a pond used to capture toxic overflow before it reaches the ocean—constructed by the state in order to control contaminated runoff that flows into the United States from Tijuana’s unplanned neighborhoods. Indicating the basin, Abbott pointed out that we have more tools in fighting pollution than beach closures and waiting periods. Healthy wetlands are one. Capturing water in place—at homes in rain barrels, for example—is another. But there is also an array of infrastructure technologies that cities can install. And these ideas are not new. “The City of San Francisco began processing runoff through their sewage system in the 1960s,” Abbott said.
In fact, several municipalities across the country have been engaged in rethinking how they deal with runoff and storm water. The City of Philadelphia is spending $1.2 billion on projects that are collectively called “green infrastructure.” Their initiative is comprised of thousands of small projects that aim to capture storm water in place and to filter it using processes that mimic nature—for example, rain gardens and bioswales, which use vegetation to safely absorb runoff. Washington, D.C., and New York are also on board. Portland is perhaps the most advanced.
Illnesses continue to occur. During an “epic” session in November 2006, surfer Chris Schumacher contracted a sinus infection in the waters off Imperial Beach. The infection was so potent that removal of flesh from his sinuses, in order to fight its advance, actually threatened Schumacher’s eyesight. The young surfer remained in the hospital for three months.
But the fixes are not confined to municipalities with big budgets. An organization called The Watershed Center in Grand Traverse Bay, Michigan, has worked with stakeholders to create an admirable network of green-infrastructure projects aimed at keeping their 277-square-mile bay on Lake Michigan as clean as possible. There are underground filters that separate sediment, oil, and bacteria from storm water. “Green roofs” capture rain on large buildings, like hospitals. Infiltration trenches capture water and allow it to soak back into the water table. Most of these projects go unseen, or actually beautify neighborhoods. “People around here understand that the bay is the driving force for everything we do,” said The Watershed Center’s Karlyn Haas. “We drink from it, we play in it; it is the driver of our economy, and we need to protect it.”
Grand Traverse Bay boasts 132 miles of coastline. San Diego County includes just 70 miles. California’s sandy beaches alone are estimated to generate $10 billion in tourism annually. The entire tourism economy of the Grand Traverse Bay area pulls in $1.18 billion.
This is not to say that municipalities in San Diego County have done nothing in the way of green infrastructure. One beachfront park in La Jolla is partly covered with permeable pavers instead of asphalt so that water can soak into the ground. New rules for developers require them to capture storm water in place; this has resulted in a smattering of bioswales, which look like small landscaped areas in parking lots. “It’s baby steps at this point,” said San Diego Coastkeeper’s Travis Pritchard. “I think that’s just due to the way storm-water managers have historically viewed runoff control,” which is to get runoff into the ocean as efficiently as possible.
Viewed in the context of our current drought, sidelining the potential for storm water to be captured and reused may be far more costly than is realized. Even polluted runoff can be recycled into drinking water far more easily and cheaply than recycling sewage. “[Storm water] is a resource,” said Abbott, “and we’re wasting it, wasting money, and contaminating the ocean.”
According to Sally Ault, a vibrio infection weakened her husband Barry’s immune system and allowed staph to get to his 10-month-old artificial heart valve. Many complications ensued. By Wednesday, four days after his final surf session, a CAT scan revealed that large portions of his brain were already gone.
“We went with his wishes and let him go,” Sally said. “Even a strong, tough old guy like him can’t fight these things.”
Since Barry’s passing, Sally has become an advocate among the Sunset Cliffs community, urging avid surfers to wait for the ocean to dilute whatever pathogens rains might wash into it. “There’ll be another wave,” she said. “You won’t get other lives.”
Meanwhile, coastal users will continue to pay the price. Developments such as the Poseidon desalination plant in Carlsbad, California, and proposed aquaculture installations off San Diego show an increased desire to move drinking water and food production into the areas affected by pollution and waste. It may be that all coastal dwellers will be impacted by mismanagement of storm water, but it’s likely that surfers are affected first and deepest. “If it’s pumping, it’s hard to say no [to paddling out],” said Adam Traubman. “We are the guinea pigs.”
[This feature is from “Home of the Brave,” our 2016 special edition Big Issue, on newsstands and available for download now.]