The Rain Has Washed Our Sins Onto SoCal's Beaches

Seal Beach and other parts of the Southern California coast look like landfills after days of rain. (Courtesy NBC Los Angeles)

With contributions from Lori Galarreta

A lot of rain has been falling in SoCal, which is a blessing as we strive to bounce back from drought, and a curse with flooding, debris flows and the ensuing chaos on roadways.

But another downside to the downpour is how it flushes out an embarrassing truth about modern life in SoCal: we are horrifyingly good at accumulating waste and polluting the local environment.

L.A.'s flood channel has so much trash it could fill the Rose Bowl field two stories high, according to the county's Public Works department.

When it rains as it has been since Thursday, local rivers and storm drains flow, sending all our trash to the ocean we love to celebrate. While our sewer system is separate, litter and debris travels unfiltered to its new home on the coast.

"As a result, our beaches look like landfills after every major rain," Mark Gold, vice chancellor at UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, recently told KPCC's Take Two. Gold said that while the much-needed rain is good for local plant life and collecting water, it's "not so great for human health or for aquatic life and our ecosystems."

Seal Beach served as Exhibit A this week, with its typically picturesque shore covered in garbage and debris.

And it's not just the obvious, single-use plastic items like straws, cups and bags that end up in our oceans. Gold explained how residue on our streets and sidewalks wash away, too, including car oil and copper from brake pads, which can be toxic to marine life.

Then there's the animal waste (thank that neighbor who never picks up after their dog) that makes the coastal waters a bacteria breeding ground. That's why public health departments advise people not to swim or surf in the ocean for a few days after a storm.

Despite the sad state of stormwater capture, Gold said there is hope in the form of Measure W, which L.A. County voters approved in November. The parcel tax is expected to generate an estimated $300 million per year to fund projects to collect and clean more stormwater, which would mean stopping pollutants from reaching the ocean.

Gold said Southern Californians can also help on the individual level by shifting consumer habits — namely our "addiction" to single-use plastic items.

"It's just basically thinking more about [how] you don't want some sort of item that literally has a useful life of less than ten minutes," he said.


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Editor's note: A version of this story was also on the radio. Listen to it here on KPCC's Take Two.