What’s in the Plume?

First-Of-Its-Kind Study Investigates Outfall Pipe in Montecito Sanitary District

Santa Barbara-based ocean watchdog Heal the Ocean this week turned its attention to investigating what exactly flows from the Montecito Sanitary District outfall pipe just offshore of Butterfly Beach. Though there is still work to be done (due to nearly a half-year’s worth of lost research time after a temporary state funding freeze), early results from the first-of-its-kind, two-year microbiological and oceanographic study were released late last week: Though the effluent plume emitting from the pipe often was found to move toward shore and to have less than ideal amounts of phosphates and nitrates — beach water quality thresholds were never violated, according to scientists.

Made possible by a $330,000 Proposition 50 grant from the State Water Resources Control Board, as well as fundraising by Heal the Ocean, the study, which was carried out by a team of UCSB scientists, tracked flow from the pipe on a weekly basis from November 2007 to November 2009, taking ocean water samples and testing them for DNA and bacteria. Still other samples were sent out to additional California labs for virus testing and cutting-edge PhyloChip scans, which can detect thousands of different types of potentially disease-causing microbes.

According to Heal the Ocean Executive Director Hilary Hauser, the exhaustive investigative approach is not just groundbreaking, it’s a model for future water quality studies. The study also pointed a big finger at the near-beach area as being the primary source of pollutants in the water, suggesting an onshore source of pollution rather than the outfall pipe. Testing remains ongoing, and Heal the Ocean expects a more definitive report to be available early this summer.

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