In light of last week’s warning at Sands Beach — which required beachgoers to avoid going within 50 feet of storm drains and creek mouths at the location — representatives from Santa Barbara County Environmental Health Services have identified the cause of high bacteria levels to be runoff resulting from recent precipitation.

Environmental Health Services first issued the warning when routine samplings from the waters at Sands Beach at Coal Oil Point exhibited unsafe levels of enterococcus bacteria, with the levels exceeding those considered safe by state standards. Representatives of Environmental Health Services have now stated that seasonal changes in precipitation and weather caused the increased bacterial levels. Sands Beach, located directly west of Isla Vista, is known amongst locals as a popular surfing spot and is one of 15 other beaches regularly tested throughout Santa Barbara County.

According to David Broman, a representative of Environmental Health Services, bacteria levels in ocean water often peak following rain, which may account for the unsafe levels found at Sands. Broman recommended swimmers look for discolored water at creek outlets when deciding whether ocean waters are safe for entering.

“It was likely due to runoff during the rainy season; water quality really suffers from watershed and raining,” Broman said. “I would give the same advice we give all the time — that if you notice the water is discolored or dirty [then] stay out of it … [and] swim up-current of any outlets.”

Professor of aqueous geochemistry and hydrology Jordan Clark said rivers, creeks and drain outlets emptying into ocean waters are usually to blame for water pollution in Santa Barbara beaches.

“It is watershed and locals want to blame it on vagrants,” Clark said. “These same people are contributing to the pollution with their horses, sewage and land pollution.”

With a bacteria count of 402 per 100 mL of water, Sands Beach far exceeds the 10 or fewer count of bacteria per 100 mL of water considered safe.

Even levels considered safe are not necessarily completely harmless and Sands Beach may not still contain such highly unsafe levels, Clark said.

“Safe levels are reported not as zero but as an undetected find. If they are at a very low density, how safe is a nondetect?” Clark said. “But I think the risk is probably very low, and if they went back to Sands Beach today and measured the levels, it would be fine.”

Furthermore, the unsafe waters of Sands Beach are not of huge concern since the bacterial pollution is part of routine seasonal changes.

“If one out of 16 are registering pollution, is that a big deal? My knowledge of this area is that, no, it is not a big deal. We have had a wet season,” Clark said. “What the big story is, [is] that 15 beaches do not have pollution … I would still follow the state mandates because you hope that they are giving good advice.”


A version of this article appeared on page 1 of January 14th, 2013’s print edition of the Nexus.