Beach Safety Warnings Flawed

Recently, the findings of a research team that included scientists from UC Irvine’s chemical engineering and material sciences department revealed problems with the public notification system of Huntington Beach’s water quality.
Joon Ha Kim, Ryan Reeves, Brett Sanders and Robert Mrse, under the direction of Stanley Grant, professor and chair of the department, published their findings in three different papers in The American Chemical Society.
Grant summarizes the significance of their three papers.
‘The first one is a document of the problems with the current approach for warning the public about episodes of poor coastal water quality, the second one describes an approach for identifying the location and magnitude of coastal pollution sources, and the third one shows that current approaches for managing coastal pollution from urban runoff in Southern California are, on the whole, ineffective,’ Grant said.
Provoked by the widespread contamination of California beaches in 1998 and the governmental regulations issued to protect public health, Grant and his team of researchers began their project to investigate these issues.
Ryan Reeves, currently employed as a research lab manager, explained what had initiated their research project.
‘Huntington Beach was closed down for almost the whole summer because of high bacteria pollution levels,’ Reeves said. ‘Ever since, we have been interested in it and have been doing studies on different parts of that area, the Talbert Marsh, Santa Ana River and along the coastline.’
From their research, they investigated the main sources of beach water pollution. Then they figured out how to improve management of pollution transportation and how to more effectively warn the public of contamination levels in the beach water.
Joon Ha Kim, a postdoctoral researcher who had been under Grant’s direction on this project for four years, explained the implications of their research.
‘By monitoring and utilizing the data we tried to explain the error-prone approach of the California decision-making on the beach posting and closure,’ Kim said.
Kim also explained how the methodology of the current technique could cause problems.
‘The current approach uses a single sample to decide whether the beach is polluted or not, but the single sample as it is can only give us either a ‘yes’ or ‘no,” Kim said. Also, because of the time lag between the sample collected and sample analysis released there is at least a 24-hour time delay that makes critical flaws in the method of public notification.’
In order to resolve this problem, Grant’s team of researchers proposed a new method that would remedy the flaws present in the current system.
‘We should have and recommend a probabilistic posting approach like a forecasting of weather,’ Kim said. ‘[Grant] and I suggest the probabilistic approach, we call now-casting, instead of using the binary decision on the pollution posting.’
‘Now-casts,’ Kim said. ‘We suggest can be conveyed to the public through a combination of Web sites, newspaper reports or television.’
As of now as prospects for their proposals to go underway seem promising, both Kim and Reeves believe that the Huntington Beach waters have significantly improved since 1999.
Jonathan Boyd, a fourth-year criminology, law and society major and frequent surfer at Huntington Beach, favors the idea of water quality forecasting.
‘For surfers, it is a general rule to wait two to three days after it rains to go into the water because of the runoff. Most people probably would not know this, though. I would say the public is not informed about the water correctly.’ Boyd said. ‘I think it would be a good idea to have a [forecast] warning system. Sometimes I question whether to go in the water or not. If I could turn on the TV and find out the contamination level, that would be great.’
Karishma Datye, a second-year biological sciences major, had similar sentiments.
‘I think that it would be a good idea for the public to assess the water quality themselves rather than just closing beaches, so they can know what’s really going on,’ Datye said.
However, Michael McKeehan, a fourth-year studio art major and an avid surfer and former lifeguard, suggests that a forecast water quality broadcast might have adverse effects as well.
‘It will just scare everyone out of the water, seeing how the beach is most of the time polluted to some extent,’ McKeehan said.