Moonlight Beach, San Diego, CA (Photo: Creative Commons)

Moonlight Beach, San Diego, CA (Photo: Creative Commons)

Amanda Griesbach is Heal the Bay‘s resident Beach Water Quality Scientist. She is responsible for programs that monitor water quality at local beaches and works to strengthen the bacterial water quality standards that protect public health. A native Wisconsinite, she has a bachelor’s degree in Biology from the University of Minnesota and a Master’s in Microbiology from the University of Wisconsin. Before coming to Heal the Bay, Amanda worked in industrial microbiology.

Planet Experts: So, you monitor the water quality of California’s beaches.

Amanda Griesbach: Just one side note – people always get confused and assume that Heal the Bay actually collects the beach water samples, which isn’t the case. We’ll collect samples only for research purposes – if there’s a problematic beach – but the routine water quality monitoring samples are taken by either dischargers, as required under their discharge permits, or health departments.

PE: So in most cases you’re examining existing data?

AG: Yes, we analyze and interpret the beach water bacteria data. Either the county or the city or the health department or the discharger – there’s lots of different agencies – are required to take beach water quality samples. They have trained personnel and the test results are required to be processed in a state-certified lab. It takes 18 to 24 hours to actually process the test results, which is crazy because in this day and age you’d think we’d have the technology to produce quicker results.

We’re essentially, at best, giving day-old beach water quality information to the public, and that’s if samples are taken on a daily basis. Many beaches are only sampled once a week, and then that data is extrapolated through the rest of the week.

PE: And what’s in those samples? What would be a good reading, a bad reading?

AG: Beach water samples are processed for fecal indicator bacteria (FIB). FIB levels exceeding certain concentrations have been associated with adverse health effects including gastrointestinal illness (e.g. nausea, vomiting and diarrhea) and skin, ear and eye infections.

While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) sets the regulatory framework with its national recreational beach water quality criteria, coastal states have the discretion to develop their own beach water quality monitoring standards and public notification programs, so long as they provide the same level of public health protection as the national criteria.

So standards can vary from state-to-state. In California there are seven marine water bacteria standards (based on three FIB: total coliform, fecal coliform and Enterococcus). Many states only have one or two standards.

Understanding the science of water quality and the health risks associated with swimming in polluted beach water can be tricky, and one of the main reasons why the Beach Report Card was developed.

A beach health advisory warning (Photo: Creative Commons)

A beach health advisory warning (Photo: Creative Commons)

PE: That’s how the Beach Report Card program began?

AG: Essentially, yes. While many of these data were required to be collected by wastewater discharges (under their permit), they weren’t publicly disseminated. And even if they were, the results were not in an easy-to-understand format.

Mark Gold, Heal the Bay’s former president, developed the Beach Report Card, which allows the public to easily access and understand the most recent beach water quality information.

The Beach Report Card assigns beach water quality ‘grades’ on an A through F grading scale. Anybody who’s gone to school knows that A is good and F is maybe not so good of a grade, and people can make their own decisions about whether they want to go to the beach based on the most recent water quality grade. That’s our main goal.

PE: What causes the ocean’s grade to shift?

AG: The water quality (bacteria concentrations) can cause the grade to vary, sometimes rapidly.

We gather beach water quality data throughout the week, whether from dischargers or the Environmental Health Department, and every Thursday or Friday we reformat that data, process it, analyze it and then come up with a grade. We post new beach water quality grades on our website every Friday so the public can have the most current beach water quality information before the weekend – when the majority of people go to the beach.

Runoff is the number one thing that affects the water’s bacterial content – contaminated runoff, which can be wet weather runoff or dry weather runoff. And a lot of people are like, ‘What is dry weather runoff?’

PE: What is dry weather runoff?

AG: [Laughs] It’s exactly what it sounds like. When you’re walking down the street and you notice a trickle of water going down into the storm drain, but it’s not raining out. That water is going into the storm drain untreated and is likely from a number of sources. Most often it’s from people over-irrigating their lawns or hosing down their sidewalks or driveways instead of using a broom to sweep it off. Or hosing down their cars.

Los Angeles River

Los Angeles River (Photo: Creative Commons)

But over-irrigating (automatic sprinklers) is a big one. Access runoff on an impervious surface such as the sidewalk or street, will  pick up whatever’s in its path – whether that’s organic material, toxins, motor oil, bacteria from pet waste or birds or whatever – and it goes into the storm drain – untreated – right out to the beach water.

That’s definitely the number one contributor of increased beach water bacteria, at least here in Southern California.

PE: What else can get into the water and cause the bacteria to go up?

AG: Well, there’s a lot of other things. In northern California there’s a lot of agricultural runoff from horse farms, dairy farms – and also, with the fertilizer and pesticides that goes untreated out to the beach water. That can cause an increase in nutrients, which may help the bacteria flourish and exponentially increase in an area.

Another problem is homeless encampments and open defecation. People don’t really like to talk about that but that can certainly be a problem. Maybe it’s not happening directly on the beach – but it can be, right under the piers – but upstream, the LA River and all its tributaries go right down – untreated – into the beach water. It can have a great effect on the beach water quality.

Fecal matter from birds can contribute to high levels of bacteria in the beach water.  Birds are present on beaches for one of two reasons:  a fresh water source and/or food source. This is evident at the Santa Monica Pier in particular, as many tourists frequently feed the birds.

Also, not picking up after your dog. Leaky septic systems, in areas that have septic systems. Sewage pipe breaks. We see a lot of spills with these pipes that are 50-plus-years-old that are corroded and not maintained and breaking and causing all sorts of spills and problems.

There are many sources, which can complicate the science even more.

Testing water quality (Photo: Creative Commons)

Testing water quality (Photo: Creative Commons)

PE: Can I ask, this laundry list of gross things, does it ever bother you or disturb you how much is out there?

AG: It bothers me from a public health standpoint, but I can stomach a lot of gross things. For example, it wouldn’t bother me to collect raw sewage samples.

I’m a little strange like that.

Though it does bother me knowing that there’s a health risk associated with people ingesting or coming into contact with polluted beach water. People unknowingly becoming sick as a result of little or no public notification – especially after a known sewage spill – makes me very upset.

Especially little kids, who put everything in their mouths and their immune systems aren’t fully-functioning yet. That really is disturbing.  The public should be immediately notified of any potential health threat.

PE: I suppose it’s not a job that attracts germaphobes.

AG: [Laughs] No, definitely not. It’s interesting, because you think that I would be a germaphobe, being a microbiologist. I’m not! I’m not at all.

Not all bacteria are harmful. In fact, many types of bacteria are actually good. People don’t get that. This is a pivotal point in understanding the science when I’m talking about bacteria in the water. Well, where is that bacteria coming from?

It’s coming from our guts, actually. We would not survive – we wouldn’t be able to digest food – if we didn’t have the hundreds of billions of different types of bacteria in our guts and in the guts of warm-blooded animals – and birds included. So bacteria are good.

Those bacteria slough off when we go to the bathroom, and that’s actually what we’re measuring. There’s a lot of different types of bacteria, and we’re actually measuring the levels of good bacteria. They’re called fecal indicator bacteria (FIB), as high levels of FIB usually ‘indicate’ fecal pollution, which can be associated with pathogenic viruses and/or bacteria.

The follow up question is always, well why don’t you just test for the pathogenic bacteria or viruses? We would love to get to that point, but so many different types of bacterial assays would have to be conducted, it’s just not plausible. And another thing, viruses in particular – and pathogenic bacteria, in some senses – are often single-celled. So you’re looking for one single cell in the volume of the ocean. So the likelihood of actually finding one single cell and then having a test that is specific for that type of bacteria or virus is implausible at the moment.

Because the indicator bacteria are in such high concentrations, they’re easier to quantify. [Their presence] doesn’t mean that there’s pathogenic bacteria or viruses associated with them in every event, but the likelihood dramatically increases if you have high levels of fecal indicator bacteria (FIB). If that makes any sense.

PE: No, that’s pretty clear. I don’t quite have a nosebleed yet but I can feel it building up.

AG: It’s strange and absurd. When I was in grad school I had two professors that debated the health effects associated with only fecal indicator bacteria. One was like, ‘Well if you were going to drink a cup of it, you wouldn’t feel well,’ and the other one would say, ‘I don’t think anything would happen to you, I think you would be fine. It’s not pathogenic and there’s no health risk.’ It may not make you feel very good if you’re going to drink a cup of highly concentrated Enterococci but as far as the pathogenic risk factor, I don’t think there’s much to worry about.

Photo: Flickr

Photo: Flickr

PE: Did they ever try to settle that with a demonstration?

AG: No, but it was a running joke for a long time, them going back and forth about drinking a concentrated coffee cup’s worth of Enterococci or  other fecal indicator bacteria.

PE: Well you’ve opened up a window into the strange world of microbiologists. I don’t know if I should thank you for that.

AG: [Laughter]

PE: How does the overall health of California’s beaches rate? I understand it’s come a long way since the late ’70s and early ’80s.

AG: Oh gosh, yeah. It’s done a complete 180. Heal the Bay started with a small group of citizens who were concerned with the lack of regulation regarding the discharge of untreated and potentially contaminated wastewater into the Santa Monica Bay. As they voiced their concerns centered on a major public health threat, the small group began to grow and be heard. Stronger local policies were eventually enforced, [and] that set a strong precedent for future water quality regulations.

PE: Describe the work you are doing with Stanford University and UCLA to develop and implement predictive beach models. What benefit will those models provide?

AG: Predictive beach models  will provide a huge benefit to public health. As I mentioned earlier, the current methods for testing bacteria associated with beach water take 18 to 24 hours to process the results, so at best the public is getting day-old beach water quality information

We developed predictive beach models that are able to ‘forecast’ beach water quality at 25 California beaches. These models were developed using historical beach specific information including past fecal indicator bacteria data, water temperature, tide, wave height and rainfall. These data were then reformatted and uploaded into several statistical programs that would ‘predict’ if a beach was likely to exceed bacteria standards in the present time, allowing the public to make educated decisions (on where to recreate) based on current water quality conditions.

Many of the models we developed can out-produce the current method results by a high degree. We hope predictive models will be precedent setting for improving coastal public health protection throughout the state. 

PE: Will that system replace the current one or is it still in the testing phase?

AG: We’re actually working on our Phase 2, the model implementation phase. We completed Phase 1, which was a two-year project that developed over 700 predictive beach models for 25 California beaches.  We’re now working on finalizing details in order to implement the pilot project next summer, where we’ll be incorporating predictive models into existing beach programs.

Predictive models could never completely replace the existing beach monitoring, as the models use these data to make accurate water quality predictions. Overall, predictive models have the ability to greatly improve beach water public notification and risk management programs.

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