October 8, 2008

County Health Officials Worry About Cut in Funding for Water Testing

By Julia Scott

State funding for a program that monitors water contamination in San Mateo County's creeks and beaches has been cut by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a loss health officials say could lead members of the public to come into contact with water containing dangerously high levels of E. coli.

County officials learned of the $35,000 budget cut this week as part of a million-dollar line-item veto the governor exacted on the state's entire ocean water-quality monitoring program, funded on a year-to-year basis through an appropriation facilitated by the Department of Public Health.

The cuts affect ongoing programs in every coastal county in California and two with beaches at the edge of the Bay: Alameda and Contra Costa counties.

San Mateo County still receives $25,000 from the federal government every year to perform beach quality monitoring, but county Environmental Health Services director Dean Peterson said those funds would be stretched thin at high-risk beaches and used only on an emergency basis to test water after large sewage spills.

Without the weekly testing program at 38 creeks and beaches, the county won't be able to detect a problem before it's too late, he said.

"Without that sampling, we're unable to identify when we have higher levels of bacteria which may indicate a sewage spill. We may not be able to post that information to warn people about going to the water," said Peterson.

The county posted bacteria contamination warnings Oct. 1 at seven beaches and creeks that were found to contain fecal coliform levels exceeding state standards. No one will be able to follow up on those problem areas now that funding has been cut, nor will the county be able to gauge the impact of last week's rain in pushing bacteria out to beaches, as it is known to do, according to county health officials.

State nonprofit group Heal the Bay won't be able to collect crucial beach closure data for its annual "Beach Bummer" report, which this spring listed Half Moon Bay's Venice Beach as one of the most polluted beaches in the state for the second year in a row.

Venice Beach is one of the locations that will lose its county monitors under the new regime. Other locations north of Half Moon Bay, such as Pillar Point Harbor and the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, will still receive testing thanks to the San Mateo County Resource Conservation District, an independent agency that recently obtained a one-year grant to coordinate a posse of "citizen scientists" who will perform water-quality tests throughout the midcoast area.

The idea is to track how watersheds along the coast contribute to pollution at places like Capistrano Beach, which is so contaminated with E. coli that the county has posted a permanent warning sign, and how pollution flows into the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary just offshore.

The county's testing helps the Resource Conservation District make its case for grant money and maintain sound scientific criteria when choosing priorities, said Kellyx Nelson, executive director of the agency.

"Gaps in data sets simply don't tell you the whole picture and it's harder to compare them to other things that were going on at the time -- was this an El Nino system, or were 40 condos just built there? Did someone's septic system break? It can make it difficult to allocate our resources to make sure we have clean water," said Nelson.

Peterson said he and other county health department officials across the Bay are working together to find a way to make sure funding would be reinstated next year. He added that the cuts were retroactive to July 1, which means the county is scrambling to find $105,000 to cover the testing it has done since then.

Reach Julia Scott at [email protected]

Originally published by Julia Scott, San Mateo County Times.

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