Sewage in the surf, or what appeared to be, has staggered Californians the last two summers. Huntington Beach, Newport Beach, Laguna Beach – all have been posted or closed because of enterococcus and coliform bacteria found in water samples taken from close to shore. Beaches farther north, in Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties, and southward in San Diego County also were declared off-limits to swimmers.

Dirty beaches? To Southern California, this is a body blow. Why has it been happening?

If the answer were simple – a burst sewer line, maybe – university researchers probably wouldn’t have gotten involved. But it hasn’t been simple, and Orange County public officials have turned to the academics for help.

Specifically, they’ve turned to Stan Grant, an associate professor in environmental engineering at UCI’s Henry Samueli School of Engineering. Grant has been designated by the National Water Research Institute (NWRI) to pull together a summary of recent research on the pollution, and recommend what should be studied next.

For beginners, researchers don’t know how long the pollution has been in the surf. Until July 1999, ocean water was being tested for two types of coliform bacteria that indicate the presence of human sewage. California law AB411 added a third indicator, and it was this one – a test for enterococcus – that sent up the red flag. But was it the test or the bacteria that was new?

“I guess that’s what we’re relying on Stan to answer,” says Chris Crompton, Orange County’s manager of environmental resources. “The likelihood is that this is something that has been there before, and was brought to our attention as a result of new testing requirements.”

California’s “golden beaches” generate about $50 billion a year in business, so beach closings are a big issue economically. But there’s something else, Grant thinks. “The beach is the crown jewel of California. The idea that it’s swimming with bacteria bothers people at a visceral level.”

Crompton remembers Summer 1999 as the time when, after “he toiled in anonymity for 20-odd years,” people suddenly became aware of what he did for a living.

“The Huntington Beach issue was a profound experience because it began as a series of isolated bacterial indicator readings on the coast and turned into a potential mystery of a sewage spill that couldn’t be located. Eventually, the finger got pointed at urban storm channels. Urban sanitation districts took the initial lead, but as we ran out of areas to look at from a sewage perspective, one potential source was the lower Santa Ana River and Talbert Marsh.”

In Talbert Marsh, a 25-acre remnant of a once-vast salt marsh, was – often literally – Stan Grant. He had been taking his students there for several years to study the impact of urban runoff. One of the things they’d observed was that the numbers of birds landing – and defecating – in the marsh went up and down on a predictable schedule throughout the day. And so did bacteria counts in the water. Laid out on charts, the spikes looked similar.

More, the bacterial levels sometimes were remarkably high. “It got me thinking,” Grant says, “maybe there is a broader issue here. This is just one small system we’re looking at. If you look more broadly at all the marshes and watersheds, there must be a lot more pollution shedding into the ocean from these systems as well.”

This was Grant’s status quo when the beaches started closing in 1999. “Suddenly there were all these postings and closings at Huntington Beach and there was a frenzy of activity where the focus was on finding a source,” Grant says. “People were running around spending literally millions of dollars looking for the cause – they were looking at pipes that had been laid and abandoned back in the 1920s. There was quite a mysterious, novel-esque element to it.

“I was sitting back thinking: What about this urban runoff element that has to be contributing to the problem? Is it possible that the reason we’re seeing the problem now is that we are looking for it now? So I went to the National Water Research Institute and said, this is something we might be able to help with.”

Grant applied for and received an NWRI grant of $140,000, one result of which was a manuscript titled “Sources of fecal pollution in the surf zone at Huntington State Beach, California.” He recently received a follow-up grant of $600,000 to continue his research.

The work placed him at the center of chaotic unfolding events and, just to make sense of it, he began keeping track, building computer files, connecting lines of enquiry. When the NWRI assembled its blue ribbon panel, Grant was a natural choice to coordinate its research survey.

He feels oddly qualified – odd because his own academic career has been “a random walk” that, for this work, suddenly makes sense.

“My wife says it’s the perfect kind of research project for me because it brings together all the different kinds of elements of my training and even my childhood. I grew up in Alaska. My parents ran a shrimp processing plant; I lived on the dock and in the water. I have a strong affinity for the water, for the ocean.”

A graduate of Stanford University, where he majored in geology, Grant first worked as a seismologist, then enrolled in environmental engineering at Cal Tech, where his advisor was a molecular biologist. At UCI, he says, he has focused on “particle physics and particle chemistry, relative to removing particle contaminants from water, primarily.”

Since stepping into the research lead, Grant says his life has been “like a surfer riding a tidal wave. I just don’t want to fall off.”

He could pass for a surfer. Grant is 36 and looks younger; he has the fitness of a daily runner. His usual straitlaced professional speech occasionally lapses into vivid ordinary-guy metaphor. Quoted again and again in newspapers last winter was Grant’s “smoking gun” comment: “If you use the ‘smoking gun’ analogy, the urban runoff would be the smoking BB gun and the marsh, the smoking .22. The smoking cannon is still out there.”

The combination works. One admirer says Grant “has done a brilliant job of communicating with the public.” Another predicted Grant’s work and energy will propel UCI to a leadership position in coping with this new threat to Southern California’s lifestyle and economy.

“He’s young and persuasive and has a vision that, when he explains it to people – whether they be scientists or working at agencies charged with the responsibility of maintaining ocean beaches, or the community – they can understand it,” says Randy Black, UCI director of federal government relations and research development. “He has an infectious enthusiasm. He has a plan that makes sense.”

“I call it the cult of Stan,” says one of his graduate students, Jeremy Redman. “He has a way about him—a way of getting people excited about his ideas. If excitement alone can do it, he’ll get it done.” Redman, who’s about to receive his Ph.D., says he’s reluctant to leave UCI for his postdoctoral work because he thinks he’ll be leaving the most exciting advances that are happening in his field.

Grant’s proposal for moving forward has grown out of a recent theory – which also is the emerging consensus – that the pollution of Southern California’s surf zone probably doesn’t have a single “smoking gun,” but instead is likely to be a complex and interdependent mix of factors.

So little is understood that almost anything is possible. Could urban runoff, for instance, be picking up leakage from eroding 1920s sewers and mixing it with petroleum byproducts that have leached into the Santa Ana River? Could urban dog droppings and the scourings of restaurant dumpsters be contributing? How significantly? Are the droppings of thousands of birds in saltwater marshes having an effect?

Ocean mechanics come into play. An offshore temperature layer – the pycnocline – normally acts like an atmospheric thermal inversion, holding down the sewage that is deposited via outfalls four miles offshore. But sometimes the pycnocline breaks down and allows sewage to sweep back toward shore. Is that a contributing factor, Grant asks?

Even California geologic faults could be involved, geologists have suggested. What if sewage is leaking through fissures directly into the surf zone?

Medical questions also remain unanswered, Grant says. There’s uncertainty about whether the specific bacteria being tested actually make people sick. More, the strain has been found living free in marshes in Hawaii. If it grows in marshes and does make people sick, marsh restoration could turn out to have been a bad idea. If it doesn’t make people sick, its presence in the California surf is unimportant.

The complexity is reminiscent of science fiction’s planetary terraforming. It’s an apt comparison, Grant says, except that in Southern California, the terraforming has already been done. “Nothing here is the way it was 100 years ago. Now we’re looking at what the environmental consequences are for the part of the environment we care about.”

People who work in the field of water purity try to make sense of the urban transformation of the landscape by looking at other metaphors, says Ronald Linsky, executive director of the NWRI. “Curbs and gutters are taking the place of streams. Open channels are the rivers we used to have. Golf courses and green strips are the glades and forests and pastures.”

He has a metaphor, as well, for the ocean’s vulnerability. “There’s a huge broth out there, a bouillabaisse. You add too much salt or too much shrimp, it turns out entirely different.

“If we could take out the biggest unknown—the one called the human – we could probably could solve the problem,” Linsky says. But Southern California has 17 million people, and 600,000 more arriving every year.”

How many types of experts – medical, engineering, oceanographic, microbiological – will it take to find answers? That’s how many Grant would like to see working on it. He has begun planning a clean beach center, to be headquartered at UCI. He would like to gather experts in a range of disciplines from throughout Southern California to serve as a board of directors that would evaluate ongoing research and strategically direct funding to the areas that show most promise. To him, the natural area to cover would be what geologists call the Southern California Bight, the area south of Santa Barbara where the coast swings eastward.

The approach has precedent, and in his ordinary-guy mode, Grant explains it: “It’s a bold-faced rip-off of the Southern California Earthquake Center.” The earthquake center, based at the University of Southern California, describes itself as “a community of scientists and specialists who actively coordinate research on earthquake hazards and communicate earthquake information to the public.”

Beach closings up and down the coast have made clear the need for coordination. As Grant envisions it, there would be “a concerted, multidisciplinary team looking at the problem in a consistent way. We’ve gotten pretty good at looking at components of systems, but looking at how they interact is not being done.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is expected to come forth with new national standards, which might well be modeled on California’s standards, Grant says, but right now California is on its own.

Orange County’s Crompton has been helping push for more local research. He would welcome a clean beach center at UCI, he says, because public officials need help. They have money to spend and public support for spending it, but little idea where to start.

“We need somebody to do the research,” Crompton says. “We want to put our money, which is limited, into something that will work. We don’t want to be doing things just to be seen as doing things, but we just don’t have the information to support doing what is right. It will allow public dollars to be spent more effectively.”

Grant has been contacting likely collaborators at other Southern California universities. So far, he says, “we have research partners from most of the major research institutions focused on marine issues, including faculty from UC Santa Barbara, UCLA, Scripps Institute of Oceanography, UCLA’s Institute of the Environment, and USC’s Wrigley Marine Institute and Sea Grant Program.

“We also have partners at UC Riverside looking at methods for rapidly detecting pollution and transport mechanisms. The San Diego State folks are looking more at health-effects issues, and folks at Cal State Fullerton are doing more policy-type work. We also have the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project, an interagency program that’s been active for 30 years.”

The first problem Grant says he expects to face is one any academic could predict. “Shared governance. We’ll be organizing a retreat shortly to go over that. I’m pretty excited about it, though, because I think it needs to be done.”

“The idea is to do good science which then feeds into policy decisions,” Grant says. “The city and the county aren’t funding all this research because they like research; they’re funding it because they need answers. They need to know: How do we respond in order to correct this problem?

“What we’re finding is that there are no simple, straightforward answers. There are no smoking guns. In the end, you have to do good science.”
Update: Grant’s research team released results of a $1.5 million study that named possible causes for the 1999 Huntington Beach closures. The latest theory involved millions of gallons of treated sewage pumped into the ocean five miles offshore, which could be driven shoreward by ocean currents called internal tides, and then sucked into the surf zone via a local power plant’s cooling system.

The researchers also concluded that Huntington Beach’s Talbert Marsh is a source of indicator bacteria from bird waste, vegetation and sediment; these bacteria are flushed into the surf with every ebbing tide.

Grant and his team are continuing their research.