<strong>Water watcher:</strong> Santa Barbara Channelkeeper's Penny Owens demonstrates how she tests indicator bacteria at a dozen area beaches each week. The organization, which has been handling winter water quality tests since the county pulled funding last year, will continue doing the work with the help of county funding.
Paul Wellman

Ever since the state budget train wreck forced the county to pull the plug on its winter beach water testing program two summers ago, nonprofit organization Santa Barbara Channelkeeper has been picking up the slack. Providing a massive public service to the thousands of surfers and swimmers who play in the Pacific Ocean during the months of November through March, Channelkeeper has been conducting weekly water testing at a dozen area beaches and has been the lone source of bacteria level updates. However, in recent months, the Channelkeeper program also found itself in jeopardy of becoming a casualty of economic strife-that is, until this week. Thanks to a 4-0 vote by the county supervisors on Tuesday (4th District’s Joni Gray was absent), the county will once again be providing the cash for winter quality tests, though Channelkeeper will continue to do the heavy lifting by carrying out the tests and informing the public. “Plain and simple, this is a public health issue” opined the 5th District’s Joe Centeno before the vote was cast. “I think we would be remiss if we did not do this.”

While the State of California mandates that the county test its beaches during the summer months of April through October, it doesn’t require anything to happen for the rest of the year, despite the fact that the wet winter months are more likely to create water quality issues due to storm water runoff. As a result, in the summer of 2008, after the state cut funding for winter testing programs, the county decided to pull the plug on its monitoring program. Knowing that the winter months are a time of year that many local beachgoers-especially surfers-live for, Channelkeeper, in conjunction with the City of Santa Barbara Creeks Division, stepped in and started the once-weekly tests for indicator bacteria like E-coli coliform and Enterococcus.

From Refugio State Beach to Rincon Point, Channelkeeper staff and interns tested 12 beaches every Monday (with the city handling testing duties at East Beach, Leadbetter, and Arroyo Burro) and provided their findings to the public free of charge via local news media and their Web site (www.sbck.org) on Tuesday evenings. Further, if a beach was tagged with a “warning”-based on California State Water Board thresholds-Channelkeeper would return to the site on Thursdays for a second test and post the follow-up results before the weekend. Last week, despite only having enough cash to carry out the testing for about two months, the organization’s testers picked up where they left off last March and released their first results of the new rainy season on November 3.

According to county staff, it cost the county some $52,000 annually to run the winter months program, but Channelkeeper needs only $15,000 to carry out essentially the exact same service.

Now, thanks to the proposal made by 1st District Supervisor Salud Carbajal this week, funding won’t be an issue for the testing program for the rest of this winter and, hopefully, for years to come. According to county staff, it cost the county some $52,000 annually to run the winter months program, but Channelkeeper needs only $15,000 to carry out essentially the exact same service. Speaking about the decision to provide Channelkeepr with the money necessary to keep the program going (the funds will come from tobacco-taxes), 2nd District Supervisor Janet Wolf said, “This is one of those minimal amounts [that we spend] that have a significant impact for our residents.”

While Channelkeeper will continue to inform the public of its findings via prior methods, the group will also be physically posting the weekly results at the Arroyo Burro Water Resource Center and the Sea Center on Stearns Wharf. The County Health Department, citing a lack of funding, a lack of mandate, and the fact that the Channelkeeper’s lab is not state certified, will not be posting its tell-tale, bright orange “Warning/Aviso” signs at area beaches based on the nonprofit’s test results. A staple of the days when the county was implementing the program, the signs-which would be hung in parking lots and on the end of stakes stuck in the sand of offending beaches- will not be present this winter, even if a beach is identified as having dangerous levels of bacteria.


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