Bacteria flowing through local watersheds, such as the Santa Ana River from Big Bear Lake to Newport Beach, or the San Juan Creek from Cleveland National Forest to Doheny State Beach, is an increasing hazard to public health, especially for surf zones just offshore.

Editor’s Note: This story series was produced by Chapman University journalism students working with the VOC Collegiate News Service.

The idea for the series was sparked by the fall oil spill off Orange County’s coast. But it also goes further — examining the seen and unseen pollution across the local environment — in drinking water sources, ocean waters, on land and in the air. We hope with this series to give residents balanced and informative stories that people can use to be empowered in the community. If you have questions, comments and story ideas please contact Sonya Quick, digital editor at Voice of OC and Chapman adjunct professor.

Harmful bacteria, like shigella and enterococcus, have been reported to affect beachgoers for years, causing staph infections and other major illnesses, according to Pam Conti, Coastal Defender with the Surfrider Foundation and Pegasus School Environmental Sustainability Director. 

What should you know before entering the water?

“Stormwater runoff from the river leads to very poor surf zone water quality, with fecal indicator bacteria concentrations exceeding California ocean bathing water standards by up to 500%.”

A study by Dr. Jong Ho Ahn from UC Irvine

As tides are always shifting and currents are always changing, “…cross-shore currents dilute contaminated surf zone water with cleaner water from offshore. Such that surf zone contamination is generally confined to <5km (3.12 miles) around the river outlet.”

Conti works with the Blue Water Task Force created by the Surfrider Foundation, focusing on testing for bacteria in the Santa Ana River.

She said the group’s members emphasize testing for major bacteria like Enterococcus, “which is an indicator species of bacteria for worst types like E coli and other things that are in the water. So if Enterococcus is present, then that means that you know the worst types of bacteria are present.”

Illnesses Caused by Bacteria

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, enterococcus is known for causing diseases such as: urinary tract infections, intra-abdominal, pelvic, and soft tissue infections, bacteremia, endocarditis, and other uncommon infections, like meningitis, hematogenous osteomyelitis, septic arthritis, and pneumonia.

According to Christian Landon’s Southern California research, “Health Threats from Polluted Coastal Waters” found that, “Researchers estimate that 90 million RWIs (Recreational Water Illnesses) occur annually and cost the U.S. economy $2.2-$3.7 billion each year.”

Landon is currently a biostatistician at Johns Hopkins University who previously obtained a masters in public health within environmental health at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health. He also recently completed a fellowship with the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Groundwater and Drinking Water group.

Chapman student, and surf photographer, Charlie Hoberman, says he experienced water contamination firsthand.

“I surfed a spot called River Jetties, right where the Santa Ana River flows after a big storm, and I got a bad sinus infection, and it was terribly uncomfortable! Along with a bad cough and after that, I vowed to never surf within 24 hours of a storm again! You should too.”

Surf photographer Charlie Hoberman

Hoberman isn’t the only surfer who has been affected by this.

 According to Jingjing Li, department of Geosciences and Environment at UCLA, an “estimated 689,000 to 4,003,000 gastro-intestinal episodes and 693,000 respiratory episodes occur due to polluted coastal waters each year in Southern California.”

Conti from Surfrider suspects enterococcus bacteria discovered in surf zones near the Santa Ana River have caused long-term health effects on people.

“A friend of mine had a double ear infection,” Conti said that she believed this was caused by Santa Ana River Runoff.

“He lost part of his hearing. That is another symptom when you get these really bad ear infections from these bacteria you can have hearing loss, he still has a 30% hearing loss in one ear,” Conti said.

“I have also heard of people getting very strange viruses that attack the brain. I know a man who had a brain illness and had to have surgery.”

Pam Conti, Coastal Defender with the Surfrider Foundation and Pegasus School Environmental Sustainability Director 

Conti has found even higher levels of bacteria in the San Juan Creek at the Doheny surf break.

“At the San Juan Creek, most of the year the sand berm builds up and there’s no water flow to the ocean and there are birds that sit in there all the time but when we get big enough rain storms and it breaks that sand berm opens and all of the waste from the birds goes in and that’s where I get the highest bacteria readings,” Conti said.

Similar Bacteria Found in the Santa Ana River

Dogs play at the mouth of the Santa Ana River. Credit: JILLIE HERROLD

The below information is research conducted by biostatician Landon, “Health Threats from Polluted Coastal Waters:

“Some surf-specific accounts of extreme health effects from exposure to polluted runoff and/or sewage spills include:

– Long time Sunset Cliffs (San Diego) surfer Barry Ault contracted a massive staph infection and died within a few days of surfing after a major rain event.

– Chris O’Connel had a cut on his arm and went to Mission Bay, San Diego after a rain event. His arm became infected with the Streptococcus bacteria and he almost died. Three operations and two and half weeks in the hospital saved his life.

– A member of the Long Beach Chapter of Surfrider Foundation became infected with the same bacteria after surfing near the San Gabriel River Mouth. Charles Moore of Long Beach was also hospitalized for two weeks.

– A long-time Surfrider Legal Issues Team member nearly had to have his foot amputated after a blister (and subsequent surfing) turned into a nasty MRSA infection (see Staph Infections).

– Mike Rhodes, another long-time Surfrider Legal Issues Team member, developed a massive ear infection and build-up of fluid in the inner ear after surfing in Del Mar, CA after a rain.

– A young surfer was reportedly diagnosed with Bell’s Palsy after surfing in the Cardiff, CA area shortly after a rain event.”

What is Being Done?

The Surfrider Foundation has been trying to prevent water contamination with their Ocean Friendly Garden Program, which started in 2011 with the goal of “preventing runoffs from going out into the ocean or into the storm drains and basically percolating it back into the ground,” Conti said.

But this issue has yet to be solved.

“Water runoff is the number 1 source of ocean pollution in urban areas,” according to the Surfrider Foundation.

Resources to Stay Safe in the Water

According to Surfline, “The Health Department advises against ocean contact for up to 72 hours following significant rainfall due to elevated bacteria levels — especially near harbors, drainpipes, and river mouths.”

Helpful links to check before entering the water:

Story written by Parker James. Story edited by Ava McLean.

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