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One Upside Of Drought: Water Has Stayed Clean At San Diego Beaches

Aired 5/22/14 on KPBS News.

San Diego beach-goers can feel pretty good about ocean water quality as Memorial Day approaches.

San Diego beach-goers can feel pretty good about ocean water quality as Memorial Day approaches.

The region got very good marks on a water quality report card based on testing over the last 12 months.

Ninety-nine percent of the county's beaches, tested last summer, got A or B grades last summer in the Heal The Bay Report Card. That held at 98 percent for this past winter. James Alamillo works for Heal the Bay and said California's ongoing drought helped keep coastal waters clean.

"Its great when we have the drought in terms of water quality, but the problem is, then the bad stuff builds up in our systems," Alamillo said.

The first strong rain after a long dry spell, according to Alamillo, is full of more pollution than normal.

"And when we get that first flush is when it all comes to the shore here and we see water quality plummet," Alamillo said.

One in five San Diego beaches got C's, D's or F's during wet weather when urban runoff fouled the water over the previous 12 months.

The problem is easy to see at San Diego's Tourmaline Surf Park. There's a concrete channel here that spills pollution into the ocean. When the urban runoff hits the ocean, surfers start to get concerned about their health.

That's why city and county officials are working with a research firm to see how surfing in the water affects their health.

"They're looking, for the first time, at surfers. It's a demographic that is oftentimes missing in health effect studies. Just because of the nature of surfing, which means they move around a lot. And when you do a health effects study, you want people to stay in a designated area."

Meanwhile, the pollution from the Tijuana River remains an ongoing water quality problem in San Diego County.

"Its what got us this year an F again in the Beach Report Card. As you know, the Border Field State Shoreline is closed an average of 300 days a year," said Paloma Aguire, who works for the environmental group Wildcoast.

Aguire said the watershed accounts for 80 to 85 percent of all San Diego county beach closures and she called it a huge problem that refuses to go away.

Aguire is encouraged there's a federal initiative to address trash, sediments and water quality in the Tijuana watershed, but she acknowledged that the problem is tougher to solve because it spans the U.S.-Mexico border.

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