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Surfers Are Canaries in the Coal Mines

Surfers Are Canaries in the Coal Mines
Why are surfers off San Diego's coast getting sick? We'll talk about coastal water pollution and how budget cuts mean less testing and bigger public safety concerns for surfers and swimmers.

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

Stuart Coleman will appear at a Surfrider Signing Party at the Bare Back Grill in downtown San Diego on Tuesday, June 9, 2009, at 6 p.m., and on Wednesday, June 10, 2009, at Borders Books in Mission Valley.

DOUG MYRLAND (Guest Host): I'm Doug Myrland and you're listening to These Days in San Diego. And in this part of the program we'll explore some answers to the question: Why are surfers off San Diego's coast getting sick? We'll talk about coastal water pollution and how budget cuts mean less testing and bigger public safety concerns for surfers and for swimmers. Our guests are Ben McCue. He's the Coastal Conservation Program Manager for WiLDCOAST, that's an Imperial Beach-based organization that works to protect coastal ecosystems and wildlife in the Californias and Latin America. Ben also serves on San Diego County's Environmental Health Advisory Board. Ben, thanks for being with us.


BEN McCUE (Coastal Conservation Program Manager, WiLDCOAST): Thanks for having me.

MYRLAND: We also welcome Stuart Coleman, Hawaiian Islands Field Coordinator for the Surfrider Foundation. He's the author of the new surfing book, "Fierce Heart: The Story of Makaha and the Soul of Hawaiian Surfing." And, Stuart, we're glad you could be with us.

STUART COLEMAN (Hawaiian Islands Field Coordinator, Surfrider Foundation): Aloha. Good to be here.

MYRLAND: And I want to make sure I'm saying Makaha properly. Should it be mah-ka-HA?

COLEMAN: Makaha.




MYRLAND: And I want to say right up front that you can meet Stuart Coleman and surfer Shaun Thomson at the Surfrider signing party tonight at 6:00 p.m. in downtown San Diego at the Bare Back Grill. Also, tomorrow night, they'll be at Borders Books in Mission Valley and you can go to for more information but I want everybody to remember that you'll have a chance to meet Stuart and talk to him about his terrific book, which I have had a chance to at least glance through this morning. And I also want to invite you to join our conversation. If you're a surfer or if you just like to put your toes in the water, have you ever gotten sick after surfing off San Diego's coast? We want you to tell us your story by calling us at 1-888-895-5727. Ben, I want to start with you. You, according to my research that I was given, you've been surfing for 16 years so you must've started when you were about three. Have you ever gotten sick from surfing?

McCUE: I have on many occasions. Actually, I began surfing in my hometown of Santa Cruz and then when I was younger, my parents moved to Costa Rica and I went to high school there. And on occasion, I would get sick after going in the water but it really wasn't until I moved here to San Diego and began to work down in Imperial Beach that I really began to recognize that connection between surfers, water quality, and their health. And so I actually, in the last two years, I've had both of my ears drilled for something that's called surfer's ear, where the bone within your ear continues to grow to keep out cold wind and water and that problem is actually exacerbated by polluted water, so I've had that done.

MYRLAND: Now in addition to your personal experiences with this environmental danger, you also, in your work with WiLDCOAST are dealing with this on a daily basis. Tell me a little bit about the progression of thinking about pollution in the ocean and the kinds of ways that we need to be careful about maintaining that environment.

McCUE: So for us surfers, the pollution in our ocean goes beyond just environmental concerns; they turn into public health concerns. And it's really from that relationship that we have with the ocean that we can really understand our connection to our natural environment. And the fact is that in I.B. there are kids growing up today who don't understand what a natural ocean really is. They come out of the water with skin rashes, ear infections, and you ask them why and they think it's because they surf. And you have to tell them, no, it's not because you surf, it's because the water's polluted. So it comes down to their whole idea of what is natural.

MYRLAND: Now, Stuart, you have written about the history of surfing and it seems that a lot of your book looks back toward the early 1970s.

COLEMAN: Umm-hmm.

MYRLAND: And were people concerned about these issues then or is this a fairly modern phenomenon?

COLEMAN: Well, I was just talking with Ben this morning about research that I had done on Rell Sunn, who is a major figure in the book and she was one of the early founding board members of the Surfrider Foundation. We're celebrating our 25th anniversary this year. And she was – you know, she said there was a big movement, especially in California and Hawaii, where there was this increasing environmental awareness among surfers and it really kind of peaked in the sixties and seventies with people like John Kelly and George Downing. And then it ebbed for many years and I think we have, right now, kind of a resurgence in awareness. Surfriders' membership is growing dramatically and people are definitely making that connection that Ben mentioned between, you know, this is not only an environmental concern but a human health concern as well.

MYRLAND: And, Ben, there are multiple possible causes of pollution but specifically in San Diego and even as specific as just on Imperial Beach, what are the main problems that we're facing?

McCUE: So the main problem that we really face as surfers is stormwater pollution. And the Tijuana River pollution is also an example of that. For instance, the Tijuana River drains the entire city of Tijuana out to the ocean and due to an accident of geography, that ocean happens to be north of the border, in San Diego. And so when you're looking at the city dynamics—and Tijuana has about two million people; approximately half of those people have adequate sewage collection treatment and so when there's winter storms everything that's not collected gets flushed downstream and ends up in our ocean.

MYRLAND: And then one thing I read is that the prevailing currents and winds along the coast don't help because of Point Loma, so the – so any southward flow is sort of blocked by that part of the bay and so maybe you can explain how that tends to hold the pollutants in the – in that area.

McCUE: So that – Yeah, that area of South San Diego County is really interesting with the ocean currents, and we're still trying to figure out exactly what's going on down there. Researchers at Scripps Institute of Oceanography have been doing a great job in terms of looking at how the plumes from the Tijuana River will impact local beaches, both in San Diego and in northern Mexico. But there – You can't say exactly on one day that the current is going to be going north or going to be going south. You really have to look at the overall oceanographic conditions and then decide from there.

MYRLAND: Stuart, are there similar kinds of problems in Hawaii these days?

COLEMAN: We do. As I mentioned, Rell Sunn was one of the most famous surfers to come out of Hawaii and just a surf goddess in many ways, very beautiful, and she fought a 15-year battle with breast cancer and she was always trying to figure out how she got this breast cancer because she was one of the healthiest people that anyone knew. I mean, she ran five miles a day, she surfed every day, she did hula, she caught her own fish and just ate very, you know, in a very healthy way. So she kind of speculated, was always looking for the sources of that, and it was like what she referred to as like a cancer of the land and the ocean, and so she thought it was, you know, maybe from pig farms that had dumped their waste into streams that went out to the ocean or the military's dumping of munitions off the coast. And so these were, you know, two of the kind of leading contenders for her, you know, trying to figure out where does this pollution come from. And, yes, across Hawaii we do have certain spots that are much worse than others. But it's probably, like Ben said, the stormwater runoff is one of the biggest, and then occasional sewage spills and seepage from septic tanks and such.

MYRLAND: That's Stuart Coleman. He's Hawaiian Islands Field Coordinator for the Surfrider Foundation. We're also speaking with Ben McCue, who's the Coastal Conservation Program Manager for WiLDCOAST, and we have some interested listeners on the telephone. Steve in San Diego, I want to invite you to join us now. Steve.

STEVE (Caller, San Diego): Thank you.

MYRLAND: So I understand that you have a story to tell about becoming ill after going surfing.

STEVE: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I moved to San Diego about eight years ago. I've been surfing for about 15 years. And I was sick a couple of times on the east coast, possibly surfing related, but since I've been in San Diego I've probably been on antibiotics for various sinus or ear infections nearly a dozen times. And it's really – Most of my friends are having the same type of problem. And I think, as Ben mentioned before with the stormwater runoff, especially any time there's rain, if you go surfing in some places, you're bound to get sick.

MYRLAND: Steve, I really appreciate you bringing that up because one thing I learned when I was doing a little research for this program is that rain is not an entirely good thing. I mean, we live in Southern California and we generally think the more rain, the better. And we read the stories in the newspaper about El Nino and we say, wow, maybe this year we'll have a lot of rain. But when it comes to that immediate area in the ocean and for surfers, rain often exacerbates this problem, right?

McCUE: Right, and I think it's – we need to be careful how we frame this because it's not the rain but it's the pollutants that the rain carries downstream. So in a natural environment, rain would be great. We would love to be able to surf in rain and not have to worry about our health but the fact is that there are numerous pollutants from cars, from streets, from urban areas, that get carried downstream when it does rain.

MYRLAND: And it's not entirely coincidental that you bring that up and we also have a comment about that on the telephone from Dadlau (sp) in Encinitas.

DADLAU (Caller, Encinitas): Yeah, thank you for taking my call.


DADLAU: A perfect segue. I just want to reiterate what the gentleman just said. The rain is the best thing we could have; the problem is there is so much pollution on the streets from cars mostly and then there's irrigation over – runoff, so there's fertilizers, and I think that's – that might be the bulk of it and I want to know if there's any other things to worry about. What we need to do is keep our water that we irrigate with on our lots so no runoff from sprinklers and so on. We should have no dry weather water in the drain – in the storm drain system. If you think about it, when it's not raining there should be no water in the storm drain, right? Well, in L.A. I heard that there's 100,000 gallons a day of runoff water in the storm drain when it's not raining. That's something we could do something about and I'd like to get your comments on that.

MYRLAND: Thanks for that. Stuart?

COLEMAN: Yeah, at the Surfrider Foundation we have a program called "Ocean Friendly Gardens," and that's a good point that the gentleman brought up, that, you know, a lot of the runoff is from – you know, is very preventable. It's from our own gardens. And so as part of that, we encourage – with CPR, conservation and, ah, I forgot the 'p' – permeability, and retention. So, you know, that we should use indigenous plants that don't require a lot of watering. You know, don't over-fertilize, which almost everyone does. You know, it's in their business to sell more fertilizer than people need. And to collect the rainwater and use that and make your driveways permeable so the water stays there and doesn't immediately go out to the storm drains.

MYRLAND: And, Ben, I'm sure you also think about these kinds of infrastructure changes that might be needed when you're working with WiLDCOAST. But it seems like a formidable change because we've built a city with storm drains and cement and curbs in the days when people weren't thinking about the possible deleterious effects of draining. I mean, the whole city's designed to drain the water out of people's yards and out of the street. How, without spending billions of dollars, are we going to change that dynamic?

McCUE: I think just – it's not rocket science. You know, we've had pervious materials around for a long time now and we need to start using those in more streets, more parking lots, so we don't get as much polluted runoff as we're getting. And the gentleman who called is exactly right, in dry weather we shouldn't have any flows in storm drains. And, you know, there's also an argument that we shouldn't even be putting any water into the ocean from, you know, sewage treatment plants, that we should try to reuse and recycle all of the water that we're currently collecting because – especially here in San Diego. You know, we live in a really arid zone and we need all the water we can get.

MYRLAND: Now there are various studies done of various beaches and one recent one was "Heal The Bay: Beach Report Card." How did we do in San Diego with that?

COLEMAN: So the "Heal The Bay Report Card" basically gives beaches all across the state of California a grade based on water quality, and that grade is specifically for a period of time that's from April first to the end of October, which is the dry weather season. And so San Diego grades -- San Diego beaches actually received pretty high grades. But we have to look carefully at that study because that study is based on bacterial data and the fact is that in recent years we haven't had very much testing at our beaches. And, also, we need to reflect upon the fact that here in San Diego we don't only use our beaches during the dry season, we especially use them during the wet season. And in many cases, it's actually during those winter rainy months when we do have the best waves.

MYRLAND: So do we not only have the best waves but also the highest chance of pollution problems?

COLEMAN: Exactly. And one great example of that is a legendary surf spot down in the South Bay called the Tijuana Sloughs, which is a deep water reef break which used to be, you know, the big wave spot in all of Southern California for people to really prove themselves as surfers. But that only breaks on big winter swells when the Tijuana River is also flowing and so in recent years, you know, surfing there on big days has been more a risk to your health based on water quality than based on the power of the waves.

MYRLAND: Why are these readings only taken during the dry season? Why aren't we doing more measuring on the beaches and providing more information for people?

COLEMAN: I think, in general, when we look at water quality, our policy really reflects the fact that we're connecting it to beach tourism. And the bulk of that beach tourism here in Southern California comes during the popular summer season. And I think we need to make a conscious shift that is really based upon the needs of our local residents, that we use our beach year round, and we also need to be testing it and posting advisories when it's shown that beach water quality is dangerous for local ocean users.

MYRLAND: So I want to ask both of you, what kind of advice would you give to someone who says I want to spend a lot of time in the ocean, I want to enjoy where I'm living, I don't want to just avoid getting into the surf, but I also want to protect my health. What are some steps you can take in the short term to protect yourself?

COLEMAN: Well, you know, one of the things that I really love about our mission statements is, you know, the protectant – protection and enjoyment of the world's ocean, beaches and waves. And I love that word 'enjoyment' in there because the philosophy behind it is, the more time people spend in the ocean, the more that they will realize their attachment to it and their love for it, and you protect what you love. And so, you know, we – that's what the Surfrider Foundation is kind of about is like getting people in the ocean, making them aware of how precious this is, this resource, so that once they do that then they will, you know, want to protect it more.

McCUE: And in addition to that, I think that it's common knowledge that, you know, the health department's advised not to go in the water within 72 hours of rain events. But being surfers, we all know that people are going to surf after rain events and so if you're going to do that, the safest thing would be to try to avoid the spots which are directly in front of river mouths or storm drains. And also like we're doing in Imperial Beach with the partnership between WiLDCOAST and the Imperial Beach Health Center, is we're actually giving out free hepatitis A vaccinations to ocean users because we know that during the rainy season there's a high concentration of the hepatitis A virus in local waters basically from the U.S.-Mexico border up through Coronado.

MYRLAND: You know, somehow I really don't see that as a huge tourist draw, to say come to San Diego and get a hepatitis A shot so you can enjoy the beach. I really feel like there's something missing there. But you gave away over a thousand shots, right?

McCUE: We're in the process. We have 1200 of these vaccinations to give out and normally ocean users would have to pay, you know, upwards of $200.00 for the series, to get vaccinated for hepatitis A. And with the partnership with the Tides Foundation we're actually offering those for free to those ocean users who we are identifying as at risk.

MYRLAND: And then staying in the Imperial Beach for awhile here, how often is that beach officially closed, let's say, during the course of a year?

McCUE: Right, so basically during dry weather, Imperial Beach water quality's generally really good. There are some concerns about during south swells and south wind conditions when we might have possible pollution coming north from Mexico or possibly from the ocean outfall off of Imperial Beach. But in general, water quality during the dry season is excellent. Water quality during the wet season is the complete opposite. Whenever the Tijuana River is flowing and researchers can show that it's impacting beach water quality, they will proactively close the beaches without even taking samples, which is actually great for public health because all throughout the country we have to wait a requisite 24 to 48 hours to get back bacterial tests before we can say, look, the water was dirty yesterday or the day before.

MYRLAND: So actually sometimes the condition can have passed by the time the sign goes up. So the water's dirty, the water gets better, the sign goes up, so that re – and people are still not using the beaches even though the condition has passed.

McCUE: In many cases. I think – I mean, the City of Imperial Beach deserves a lot of credit for how their lifeguards have worked with Scripps Institute of Oceanography researchers to – and the County Department of Public Health to proactively put up health advisories any time when they think the beaches might be polluted. So there's an argument out there that despite being one of the most polluted beaches in the U.S., Imperial Beach, for ocean users, is also one of the safest because we can go to the beach and know that if there are signs up, that's a pretty accurate assessment of beach water quality.

MYRLAND: Now, Stuart, I want to go back to Hawaii and ask once again, you're facing similar issues in some places in Hawaii. Do you – Have you all figured out some solutions that you think we might want to apply here?

COLEMAN: That's an interesting point. I think the issues or many of the issues are the same, the storm water runoff and another national campaign that we're focusing on is, you know, "Rise Above Plastics" because, as we know, the great Pacific garbage patch has become, you know, received national attention in the last couple of years. And so we're trying to encourage people to get off of, you know, single use plastic water bottles and bags, and so we're working around the country to kind of ban those because even though it's not as much of a health issue, it's extremely dangerous for sea life out there, you know, that confuse plastic bags for food, for jelly fish, and turtles eat it, and so that's a campaign that we're really focused on because it's not only human health issues but we also have to worry about the wildlife in the ocean and protect them as well.

MYRLAND: And you're with the Surfrider Foundation. We have this organization here called WiLDCOAST. Do organizations like yours cooperate? Pool resources? Work on joint projects?

McCUE: Definitely. And actually a great example of that that Stuart and I were just talking about was the cleanup that we had this past Saturday in the Tijuana River Valley where we got together over 300 volunteers that didn't include just environmental groups. Surfrider and WiLDCOAST along with the Tijuana River Citizens Council organized the event but on hand, among those volunteers, we had ranchers, equestrians who wanted to make sure that they weren't stepping on trash when they took their horses into the Tijuana River Valley. We had surfers there who wanted to make sure that that trash wouldn't make its way onto local beaches with the next rain. And it was just really – it was really heartening seeing all these people come together, a cross section of the South Bay community, to deal with the shared environmental and public health challenge. And in a little over three hours, we collected seven tons of tires and over three tons of trash, so it was a great event.

MYRLAND: And good exercise, too.

McCUE: Umm-hmm.


MYRLAND: That leads me to a question about what kind of expectations you have from public officials, politicians, people in positions of elected or appointed authority. What are the main issues that your organization is pushing to get a response from those folks? I mean, it's one thing to talk about grass roots action and communities working together but there's also a role, I think, for government to play here. What do you ask them to do?

McCUE: It's huge. And as our elected officials, they really are our representatives and so just their ability to take the needs of the community up to that policy level, whether it's at the local, state, federal or international level, that's really what we need them to do. But it's up to us in the community to really drive that process, I believe, and so we really need to show how we're impacted by, for instance, storm water pollution and then actually come up with some of the solutions and work, you know, with researchers, work with scientists, to bring the best possible data to those elected officials to ensure that the public policy they're making really reflects the needs of our communities.

MYRLAND: There was an article in the New York Times not too long ago that focused on a couple of people who are surfers who are also baby boomers, people my age, and one of the suggestions that was made in that article is that as surfers are older and taking on more of those characters of what people – characteristics of what people do older in life, that they may actually become more politically active, that some of the older surfers may actually have the time and the inclination to take a more public stance in terms of advocating for their issues and putting pressure on politicians. Have you found that to be true in your own organization?

McCUE: Definitely, there are some older people who are just, you know, coming out and – and as environmental advocates, and that's great. But I think that the best thing, the most hope that we have is really seeing the next generation come up and them learning that they have a stake in this public process, in the democratic process, and, I mean, that's just represented by all the local kids down in Imperial Beach who come into our office pretty much every day in the summer and they want to know what they can do to help clean the Tijuana River, to help make sure that their little brothers and sisters aren't getting sick when they go in the water. And I remember when I was in high school, which wasn't that long ago, but I think we were a lot more apathetic and I think the local high school students that we've been really engaging in our campaigns and I'm sure Surfrider has as well, they just have this energy about them that's – it's infectious. It's really great.

MYRLAND: Stuart, how about your organization's advocacy efforts?

COLEMAN: You know, like I said, we've been going for 25 years now and it was, you know, a committed group of people in Malibu that started the Surfrider Foundation. But, you know, we have had a decline in civic engagement over the last 40 years. If you read the book "Bowling Alone," it shows how people were just getting less and less involved, and it was very discouraging. The most encouraging part of his research, though, of David Putnam's research, was that in the last five years, with community service programs, with service learning spreading across – throughout the education system, there's been a major, major increase in civic engagement. And so I think we're at a time right now where people realize it's vital. This is a, you know, a matter that has to be resolved now, that people realize that the environment is at serious risk in many ways.

MYRLAND: Well, and that really brings us full circle to your book, "Fierce Heart," which does talk about the spirit of a relatively small community…

COLEMAN: Umm-hmm.

MYRLAND: …in Hawaii. And so it's all – it's all in the spirit of aloha.


MYRLAND: Well, I want to thank both Ben McCue, Coastal Conservation Program Manager for WiLDCOAST, and Stuart Coleman, Hawaiian Islands Field Coordinator for the Surfrider Foundation for being with us. And another reminder that you can meet Stuart Coleman and surfer Shaun Thomson at the Surfrider signing party tonight at six o'clock at the Bare Back Grill or tomorrow at Borders Books at 7:00 p.m. in Mission Valley. For These Days, I'm Doug Myrland.