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Dirty Water

— Way back in English class they called it "situational irony." There in the tiny, tranquil breakers, almost waveless, pint-sized children frolicked. They scooped dark mud and tossed it, wrestled, and held each other's adolescent heads underwater. One coughed and sputtered from a mouthful. Their mothers lazed, reclining on blankets in the green grass, sunning, unconcerned. And in the near distance a gang of smiling dads shared the summer afternoon on their roaring grown-up toys: boats and jet skis, swerving and zooming.

Picnics, games, the obligatory barbecues, togetherness -- an idyllic, family day on the bay, right there...in the shadow of a warning sign.

Literally. A "WARNING!" sign. It reads, "Contact with this water may cause illness. Bacteria levels exceed health standards."

Up the strand a ways, a white tent is conspicuously pitched. It houses a burgeoning group of biologists from UC Berkeley. They're doing a study. On the tent they've tied up handwritten signs: "Free water testing. Information on water safety in Mission Bay."

I approach the biologists and ask them how they could let the people swim there. "We're here to raise awareness and to administer tests to the water and to the people who would like to participate," one of them tells me. "We're not here to give our opinion. But if you're asking me what I think, I think it's kind of unbelievable."

One mother's been out swimming in the shallows with the kids. She comes up from the water with her wet-haired youngster in her arms, and I ask her if she's at all uneasy about her child swimming there. "Oh," she says. "We don't worry too much about that stuff. No one in our family's ever gotten sick here. And we're here all the time."

Mission Bay is visited every year by approximately three million people, according to the visitors' center on the east side of the bay. They say that frequent year-round recreational activities on the bay -- from waterskiing to swimming, fishing and kayaking, rowing and sailing -- generate over $25 million in revenue for San Diego's economy. The bay also hosts a diverse assemblage of species indigenous to the Southern California coastline and is home to several wildlife preserves.

Yet, for the past several years, the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board has identified the entirety of Mission Bay as impaired under Section 303(d) of the Federal Clean Water Act. Impaired. Or, more accurately, humanly impaired. Currently, Mission Bay does not consistently meet water-quality standards for swimming or fishing.

Mission Bay receives a constant discharge of water contaminated with high levels of fecal coliform and enterococci bacteria. That is, doo-doo. Poop. The known sources of contamination are (1) episodic sewage spills from creeks or from direct discharge of sewage from blocked sewage collection pipes; (2) storm water that enters via 89 storm drains; (3) illicit discharges of septic- tank water from recreational boats; (4) roadway runoff during storm events; and (5) waterfowl and domestic animals' fecal matter. Mission Bay is monitored -- sort of -- for the presence of total coliform, fecal coliform, and enterococci. Or rather, the water is tested, and then the tests are sent off to a lab, and then the test results return, and then the beach is posted if it's unsafe. Two or three days later, that's all. Plenty efficient.

The number of beach postings and closures has even increased over the last several years. Monitoring data from the San Diego County Department of Environmental Health shows that in the years 1993-2000, Mission Bay was either posted or closed 1100 days for bacterial contamination out of a possible 2555 days. Analysis of the bacterial-monitoring data for the past four years shows a 40 percent increase in the number of postings and closings.

The City of San Diego has taken steps previously to clean up or abate the effects of waste in the Mission Bay watershed. These included installing dry-weather flow divertors to intercept runoff during dry weather and divert it to the sanitary sewer; adding low-flow alarms that serve as an early-warning system for broken or clogged pipes; instituting an educational program to teach public awareness about storm- water runoff; and initiation of a Clean Water Task Force to develop plans and policies to reduce pollution at San Diego's bays and beaches.

According to reports, water-quality control staff concluded back in 2000 that there was a lack of sufficient, science-based information to delineate the exact source or sources of the bacterial contamination entering Mission Bay. One document read, "It would be financially impractical to attempt to clean up all perceived sources of contamination. Thus, any meaningful improvements by the City of San Diego to abate the effects of contaminated discharge cannot be made without proper source identification." So the sources are being identified.

Aside from the sewers and runoff, another contamination source is the jet skis I saw those dads riding. The two-stroke engines that power most jet skis run on a mixture of oil and gasoline. They discharge as much as one-third of this mixture -- unburned -- into the water. The California Air Resources Board has reported that a two-hour ride on a 100-horsepower jet ski emits the same amount of pollution as driving 139,000 miles in a 1998 passenger car.

Of course, the two-stroke engine has its supporters as well. One man told me that they use the same engines in wildlife preserves. He said the two-stroke is the standard outboard motor for almost every boat on the water, here or anywhere. In effect, he was saying there's no way around it.

And then there's the granddaddy of potential contaminators, the old Mission Bay landfill on the South Shores -- our own Love Canal. The closed Mission Bay landfill was a receptacle for toxic materials for many years during the '50s. The community has long expressed concern that the landfill may be leaking since it was never contained or lined. In August of 2002, Councilmember Donna Frye and the Environmental Services Department began a new investigation into the current conditions at the landfill. The goal of the investigation is to determine the environmental and public health issues surrounding the site.

In order to help evaluate and advise the City during this investigation, Councilmember Frye convened the Mission Bay Technical Advisory Committee. This oversight committee is made up of technical experts and community members interested in completing a site assessment and determining appropriate clean-up measures for the landfill. In December 2003, newly elected councilmember Michael Zucchet joined Councilmember Frye in chairing the committee, which is currently working with the city to recommend a consultant to complete the site investigation.

Said Frye, "We have a technical advisory committee to look at the toxic-waste dump on South Shores, which was used in the '50s. Now there's a parking lot and a boat ramp there, but underneath it is this capped toxic-waste dump. But it hasn't ever been adequately studied, what's under there and whether or not it's safe. We have to determine what the limits are of that old landfill, and how far it extends, and whether or not there are any human health impacts, and if anything's leaking.

"It really may be the worst area of the whole bay, South Shores; we don't know. It's really difficult to go back. We've been trying to study this, but there are no records, and there were hardly any laws back then. People were allowed to burn their trash, they could dig a trench and dump a barrel in it. It's been claimed that all this industrial, military-type waste was dumped there in the '50s by Convair and General Dynamics and by the Navy itself."

Frye went on, "It takes a long time. I mean, I'm condensing this. The first thing you have to do is you have to make people understand that there's a problem. So that took many years to get people to admit that there was a pollution problem, even though the bay was listed as an impaired water body by the state and city and federal governments. And then once you get people to admit there's a problem and you start figuring out what the solutions might be, then you can go out and start trying to put together things that might start to eliminate that pollution. And we have a lot of grant money to do that. Right now the grant money's being used for epidemiological studies and a 'fate and transfer' study, which shows us where the pollutants may be going and moving once they're in the bay.

"We're doing our best," Frye continued, "but I haven't fulfilled my campaign promises yet, not even close. I haven't fulfilled my goal of cleaning up the bay. But I'll keep doing it. I'll keep trying. And when the bay's no longer listed as an impaired water body, then I'll have succeeded."

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