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Funding increased for California beach water testing

Baby beach
A new California law is expected to boost funds for health testing to protect swimmers from contaminated beach water.

The state Water Board will have the authority to provide up to $1.8 million a year for water quality tests at hundreds of beaches across the state until mid-2016 through a bill written by state Sen. Christine Kehoe (D-San Diego) and signed into law last week by Gov. Jerry Brown.

The water board is likely to pay for the tests starting next year by increasing fees it collects from agencies that discharge waste water into the ocean. Drawing from those fees is considered more reliable than the state’s general fund, where the money has come from in the past.

The measure could mean a brighter, cleaner future for California’s beaches, which bring in an estimated $12 billion in tourism revenue each year.

A 1999 law requires local health officials to test beaches for illness-causing pathogens at least once a week during the long summer beach season and post advisories to warn swimmers when they don’t meet health standards. But state and county budget cuts have led beaches up and down the coast to scale back monitoring and in some places halt testing for months at a time, putting swimmers, surfers and divers at a greater risk of getting sick.

California officials have struggled to pay for beach testing since 2008, when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger eliminated the $1 million the state had given the Department of Public Health each year to administer the program. Stimulus and bond money that has kept the tests going since then are set to run out by the end of the year.

The new law, which transfers more responsibility to the state Water Board, could lead to more consistent beach monitoring on popular stretches of coastline like Los Angeles County, where the tests have for years gone underfunded.

“In fact, we'd like them to expand testing,” said Justin Malan, executive director of the California Assn. of Environmental Health Administrators, which backed the legislation, “because in Southern California, the beaches are really year-round.”

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--Tony Barboza

Photo: Children play in the water at Baby Beach in Dana Point in 2010. Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times

 
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