While big storms equal big waves, they can also signal hazardous water for swimmers and surfers.

The first storm after a dry period contains a collection and buildup of pollutants, resulting in hazardous water runoff. Last week, Santa Barbara County Environmental Health Services – who test 19 of the county’s beaches on a weekly basis – issued this season’s first water runoff advisory.

The warning, which the county releases after any rainfall, advised the public to stay out of the water for at least three days following a storm, and for longer periods of time after larger storms or sustained rainfall.

“The first rain is the big flush … all the blacktop, all the oils and grease that are just sitting around go into the storm drains which go into the creeks and oceans,” said Keith Zandona, chair of the Santa Barbara chapter of the Surfrider Foundation.

Water in the storm drain system may carry pollutants because it is not treated like water in the municipal sewer system. The pollutants can cause a variety of illnesses such as skin rashes, fever, chills, ear infections, vomiting, diarrhea and even hepatitis, according to studies by the county’s Public Health Dept.

Dan Reid, project manager for Environmental Health Services, said determining the origin of the pollutants is difficult.

“In some cases we have detected human waste in some of the areas. It is kind of hard to tell where this is coming from, whether it is swimmers using the area or a fault or defect of our sewage and septic system,” Reid said.

The county water-sampling program began in 1996, and has sampled 19 beaches weekly since 1998, including Sands and Goleta Beaches. Since 1998, the percentage of harmful bacteria in the water has fallen, from 30 percent in 1998 to 20 percent in 2000.

This week’s results, tested on Nov. 5, listed all of the county’s beaches as open, except Gaviota State Beach, which had a warning posted.

Reid cautioned water-goers to stay at least 400 yards away from a creek mouth or other small openings, such as sewage drains or gutters. A larger separation is recommended for larger openings into the water.

Reid advised those with illness symptoms to seek medical attention.

“The types of illnesses are easy to treat. They all have different incubation periods, [but] typically you will see something within 24 to 48 hours,” he said. “These types of events bring a large increase in the bacteria count.”

Freshman economics major Mark Holl said while he tries to stay away from obviously polluted areas, he will still surf after a storm.

“It depends, because if you surf by a sewage drain or an opening into the water it can be bad. Other than that I surf after a storm because the best surf is after a storm,” he said.

Environmental Services also advised fishermen to wait anywhere from four to 12 days to harvest shellfish following a rainstorm. While cooking may kill harmful bacteria, it does not always kill viruses.

“Mussels, clams, oysters and abalone normally feed off the bacteria itself and concentrate it in areas to where it can be harmful for humans,” Reid said.