Huntington Beach ocean water quality is repeatedly under threat from seasonal change and potential for oil spills. 

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.

Huntington Beach has had two oil spills in the last three decades, with one occurring in 1990, and one this year frequently scoring in the low ranges of water quality during rainy seasons. 

According to the 2020-21 Heal the Bay Report, only 57% of California’s beaches had good water quality during times with wet weather, which is worse than the average water quality of wet seasons in years past.  

The Perils of Rainy Seasons

Rainy seasons tend to be detrimental to water quality because rain picks up waste runoff from: 

  • Streets
  • Sewage overflow
  • Lawns
  • Farms
  • Streams
  • Dirt
  • Animal Waste

These are the more common types of pollutants that rain water tends to pick up and carry to the storm drains, and subsequently the ocean. A fair amount of the runoff is from human impact, like people not picking up after their pets or even themselves.

The Oil Impact

Huntington Beach has a long history with oil production.

The city was largely defined by its oil rigs in the 70s, until efforts were made to conceal the rigs in order to boost the image of the city in the 80s. 

Despite this image rehabilitation, the city still has a large investment in oil, hosting offshore drilling rigs and pipelines. 

Crews clean up crude oil from the offshore pipeline leak along Orange County’s beach on Wednesday, Oct. 6. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

These offshore rigs greatly increase the risks and chances for oil spills and damage to the ocean nearby, according to Environment America. 

There have been two oil spills in the recent history of Huntington Beach, one in 1990 and the other in 2021. 

The October 2021 oil spill dumped an estimated 25,000 gallons of crude oil into the ocean, and resulted in the closure of Huntington Beach from Oct. 3-11.

Despite the beaches being reopened, concerns about water quality still remained. 

Voice of OC previously reported that divers saw an oil sheen in the water while swimming on Saturday Nov. 20, a month after the beach was reopened to the public. 

It’s still unclear whether that sheen was leftover oil from the spill, or from a new leak.

There are 27 offshore oil rigs in Huntington Beach. 

Huntington Beach’s Water Quality Today

As of December 2021, both the city and state beaches in HB are open and have ocean water bacteria levels that meet state standards, according to the OC beach information site. The site tells beachgoers whether or not the water is safe for swimming, in terms of bacteria levels.

Also, according to the 2020-21 Heal the Bay report, a yearly report done by a nonprofit environmental organization designed to monitor the cleanliness of Los Angeles beaches, the majority of Huntington Beach areas received an A, the highest grade, for water quality.

The only times that the scores weren’t at an A were during wet weather periods, when most pollutants tend to be flushed into the ocean from rainfall. During the wet weather periods, Huntington scored in the D-F range. 

The Orange County Health Care Agency also measures Huntington Beach’s water quality. Their measurements, however, only relate to bacteria testing and sampling, according to Huntington Environmental Services Manager Jim Merid. 

Merid stated that the Orange County Health Care Agency measures enterococcus (lactic acid bacteria), fecal bacteria, and total bacteria in water. They make sure that the bacteria aren’t present in elevated levels.

According to Merid, the water quality of the Huntington Beaches is average, with the sole exception of the oil spill that occurred on Oct. 3. 

The Future of Huntington Beach Water Quality

Despite the upward trend in water quality, there are still possibilities of other incidents like the recent oil spill, or an increase in pollution or wet weather could cause water quality to dip again.

Experts and officials urge people in the Los Angeles area to do their part individually to keep beaches clean. 

Huntington Beach on March 28, 2020. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Merid cites the main theme of improving water quality to be “only rain in the drain.”

Things like trash, oil, grease, and pet waste that are left on the sidewalks and streets that are washed off by rain and irrigation runoff and down the storm drain are emitted into the ocean untreated. 

For further information on how to help keep our beaches clean and prevent runoff of pollutants into the ocean, here are guidelines and information from the city of Huntington Beach

  • Don’t hose down your driveway 
  • Put leaves and trimmings in green waste containers instead of sweeping them into gutters
  • Use cat litter to clean up fluids leaking from your car, instead of putting fluids down the storm drain
  • Recycle your used oil by taking it to a service station or a hazardous waste collection site
  • Only dispose of pool/spa water after it has been dechlorinated
  • Keep litter off the streets
  • Pick up after your pets
  • Wash your pets either in a tub, or on the lawn
  • Use a nozzle on your hose to limit the amount of water used
  • Use non-toxic soaps when washing your car
  • Try to divert the soap suds from the storm drain
  • Don’t overwater or over fertilize your lawn
  • Use plants that don’t need a lot of water, or water your plants by hand to reduce overwatering

Story written by Daryn Schvimmer. Edited by Ava McLean.

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