COAST CITIES — The county Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to approve a yearlong pilot program that could significantly cut down the time it takes to determine whether local waters are too polluted to swim in.
Currently, the county Department of Environmental Health collects water samples several times a week throughout the year. In the event of poor water quality, closure signs are posted on affected beaches and the results are put online. The samples, however, take 24 to 48 hours to analyze.
During this lag time, people could enter the water without knowing pathogen levels are high, making them more likely to get sick. And in some cases, beaches might be closed longer than necessary because pollutants might have already left the water while the samples were being analyzed.
“Any delay in identifying contaminated water puts people at risk,” Supervisor Greg Cox said at the Board of Supervisors meeting. “It is also an economic issue. Tourists need to know if our oceans and bays are safe to swim in. Any delay given to our tourists visiting our beaches puts our tourism economy at risk.”
The new rapid testing only takes four to eight hours, depending on which beach and the kinds of pollutants in the water, according to Mark McPherson, chief of the Department of Environmental Health’s Land and Water Quality division.
The rapid testing results will be compared with the existing water quality program, which analyzes 20 samples each week at 15 sites along San Diego’s coastline. McPherson said the rapid testing will be employed after sewage spills and after it rains.
“We want to find out when beach closures were lifted under the two different methods,” McPherson said over the phone after the meeting.
The new program is quicker because, unlike the old method, it doesn’t involve growing bacteria to analyze, a process that can take more than 24 hours.
He noted Orange County already conducted a pilot program using the rapid testing, but San Diego is still an early adopter.
The program will cost the county $59,000, and the 12-month study is slated to start in April.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency signed off on rapid testing, known as qPCR, said Cox several days before the Board of Supervisors meeting. But beyond pilot programs, the state has yet to approve qPCR. Cox said he would encourage the state to approve the rapid testing.
“It’s a conversation the state should have,” Cox said.
County staff was asked to report back on the findings of the study within 60 days of its completion and also determine if the state will reimburse the county for the program. A funding source has yet to be identified.
Three people spoke in favor of the program at the meeting, including Antonio Martinez, outreach coordinator for the Imperial Beach Health Center. He said the program would benefit families who regularly swim in San Diego waters.
“Especially when it comes to the lag time of when the test results will actually tell them when not to use the waters, it’s very important for them,” Martinez said.