Los Angeles County beaches are some of the most recognizable and popular in the world, stretching nearly 25 miles from Nicholas Canyon in Malibu to White Point/Royal Palms in San Pedro. Each year, they attract more than 50 million visitors, tourists and locals alike. Unfortunately, many in 2023 have experienced high levels of bacteria and other contaminants. Polluted waters pose a significant health risk to both people and ocean-dwelling creatures. People coming into contact with such water are more likely to contract illnesses including stomach flu, ear infections, upper respiratory infections, and rashes. Recent media reports have shown beached seals lying dead on the region’s sandy shores.
The L.A. County Department of Public Health releases a list of areas to avoid swimming, surfing, and playing in ocean waters. One recent list included 11 locations along its coast, including two swimming areas at Redondo Beach and one each at Hermosa Beach, Palos Verdes Beach, Manhattan Beach, Carbon Canyon Beach in Malibu, Malibu Pier and Beach, Malibu Lagoon State Beach at Surfrider Beach, Bluff Cove at Palos Verdes Beach, Inner Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro, and Santa Monica Pier and Beach—in other words, nearly the entire L.A. County beach coastline.
Officials measure bacteria levels by sampling types of fecal-indicator bacteria (FIB), including total coliform, fecal coliform, and Enterococcus spp. The amount of fecal-indicator bacteria present in runoff, and consequently present at the beach, is currently the best indication of whether a beach is safe for recreational water contact. Though fecal-indicator bacteria themselves do not usually cause bather illness, their presence is a sign of potential contamination by other pathogenic microorganisms, including viruses, protozoa, and other types of bacteria—all of which do pose health risks to humans. And when FIB levels are high, other contaminants, including toxic heavy metals and pesticides, are often present as well.
On a recent trip to Carbon Canyon Beach in Malibu, I spotted a public-health sign that read, “Avoid water contact activities due to high bacteria levels.” There was only one sign for the entire beach, where at least 40 visitors had gathered, blissfully unaware of the warning. The majority of L.A. County-identified polluted areas, however, have no public signs, including the heavily trafficked Santa Monica Pier and beach area. The Department of Public Health recommends avoiding swimming anywhere within 100 yards of an affected location, but these areas are not clearly marked. Unless beachgoers are following public health agencies on social media, it’s unlikely they know about these warnings. Unbelievably, health officials have issued warnings to avoid beaches near the Santa Monica Pier for every week so far in 2023. But on any given day, one can see children and entire families swimming on both sides of the pier, well within a 100-yard radius.
L.A. County is comprised of 88 cities. These cities have separate systems for sewage, which is routed to treatment plants, and rainwater runoff, which is allowed to flow directly into waterways and the ocean. Sidewalks with drains usually have markers or are spraypainted with “no dumping” signs, letting the public know that they allow rainwater or any other substance to pass directly into waterways untreated. Keeping the two systems separate helps prevent stormwater from overwhelming treatment plants during heavy rainfalls, which can lead to releases of raw sewage. Unfortunately, very few cities in the region have urban runoff recycling programs (including Los Angeles, the largest city in the county), which means that anything contaminating city streets eventually gets washed into the ocean. This can lead to heightened levels of ocean contamination after big rainfalls. National officials are warning that Hurricane Hillary, California’s first tropical summer storm in recent history, could unleash more than a year’s worth of rain in one weekend, along with flooding. The storm will flush heavy toxins from our streets into the Pacific Ocean.
Urban runoff is even more of a problem in areas with large homeless encampments, since everything that lands in our streets—feces, needles, trash, and debris—ends up in our storm drains and gets dumped into the Pacific Ocean. L.A. County received 23 inches of rain during this past rainy season, far above the historical average of ten inches. However, L.A.’s rainy season has long since passed, so it is highly unusual that public-health officials continue to blame urban runoff for contamination.
In June, the environmental nonprofit Heal the Bay released its Beach Bummer List, which ranks the most polluted beaches in “Los Angeles, San Mateo, San Diego, and Orange Counties as well as the Tijuana Area” based on levels of harmful bacteria in the ocean. This year, Santa Monica Pier tied for the worst spot with Playa Blanca in Tijuana, Mexico, which is plagued by insufficient and sometimes nonexistent sewage infrastructure.
The contamination of L.A. beaches appears to be caused by a combination of dirty street runoff and recurring problems involving sewage infrastructure. For example, Mother’s Beach in Marina Del Rey and the adjacent Venice Beach were closed completely for a few days last January due to a 64,000-gallon sewage spill. The L.A. County Department of Public Health explained that the leak stemmed from a blocked main sewer line, which caused sewage to overflow into the storm drain system, eventually reaching the ocean.
Raw sewage spills happen more frequently than the public realizes. L.A. County experienced 95 sewage spills, adding up to 330,396 gallons in 2022, far less than the 20 million gallons spilled the previous year. One of the largest sewage spills in recent history occurred in July 2021 at the Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant, which sent 13 million gallons of sewage into the Santa Monica Bay, endangering the health and safety of L.A. County beachgoers and Hyperion workers. For several weeks after the spill, surrounding communities were blanketed in noxious fumes, and Hyperion continued to discharge millions of gallons of undertreated wastewater into the ocean as repairs were made. Public notifications were alarmingly slow; the Department of Public Health took nearly 24 hours to close beaches and issue sewage-spill advisories.
This problem is not exclusive to L.A. County. Last year, an astounding 45 million gallons of sewage were spilled statewide, much of which made its way to beaches. Only 56 percent of California beaches earned good or excellent grades during wet weather—far below average.
Sewage spills don’t seem to be improving for L.A. County in 2023. In April, 250,000 gallons of sewage spilled into the Los Angeles River, leading to the closure of seven miles of public beaches. The massive spill was caused by a malfunction in equipment used by sanitation maintenance crews, according to a news release from the Los Angeles County Sanitation District. The malfunction caused a blockage that resulted in an overflow of sewage in the city of Downey, about 15 miles from Long Beach, resulting in a spill that reached the Los Angeles River.
In June, three sewage spills occurred in the same week. On June 7, Long Beach officials closed coastal swimming areas in the city after about 50,000 gallons of sewage spilled into the Alhambra Wash. On June 8, officials released a public-health warning after approximately 30,000 gallons of raw sewage were released into the waters near the Lunada Bay beach area in Palos Verdes Estates. Malibu Lagoon State Beach and Surfrider Beach were closed for several weeks after the Department of Public Health said that approximately 5,000 to 6,000 gallons of untreated sewage had contaminated Malibu waters.
L.A. County’s ongoing sewer overflows can be addressed through better management and infrastructure upgrades. But the parallel question of how much the region’s sprawling homeless encampments contribute to water pollution has yet to be studied, much less mitigated. The recent 2023 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count results show a 9 percent rise in homelessness over the previous year, bringing the estimated population to 75,518. In addition to growing tent cities, L.A. County has seen an explosion of individuals living in recreational vehicles, often parked on residential streets since March 2020, when many municipal codes, including one that prohibits the use of vehicles as habitations, were suspended because of the Covid pandemic. As of today, officials have presented no clear timeline for the resumption of enforcement of codes prohibiting RV dwellings.
Public officials and the media rarely acknowledge the damage that illegally parked RVs inflict on the environment. The presence of so many RVs might explain the mystery of why beach contamination levels remain high even during Southern California’s dry summer months. Many RVs inhabited by homeless people are no longer operable, which means they can’t drive to authorized dumping stations. If they are draining their “blackwater” tanks directly into storm drains, that adds up to a substantial new source of raw sewage flowing directly to L.A. beaches. In other words, the region’s storm drains, designed to carry only rainwater, have become sewage lines emptying untreated effluent directly into the Pacific.
Illegal businesses have also flourished, such as those that drain septic tanks for RV dwellers. The legal portable-sewage-removal industry is highly regulated in L.A. County, which means that these fly-by-night companies may well be illegally disposing of the raw sewage they collect. County officials appear to have done nothing about this.
All 11 of the beaches listed as hazardous by the Department of Public Health have nearby storm drains that feed directly into the ocean. These drains are supposed to be channels for clean rainwater; if L.A.s streets were kept clear of filth, they would not present a major pollution threat. But growing tent cities and uncontrolled RV habitation have turned these drains into conduits for trash and human waste. So far, most L.A. County officials have downplayed or remained silent about the public-health implications of homeless encampments for area beaches. It is time they acknowledge that burgeoning homelessness is not just a social problem but also an environmental hazard.
Long ago, Californians pioneered the environmental movement. Now that their beautiful beaches are under threat, where are the state’s environmentalists?
Photo by Allen J. Schaben/Getty Images