With Recent Rains, Ocean Institute Scientists Test Water Quality
By Lillian Boyd, Dana Point Times

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With recent heavy rainfall in Dana Point, water quality scientists at Ocean Institute want citizens to ask themselves how pollution might impact our ocean water.

Science instructors and naturalists Laura Wong and Erica Chuc are part of the Blue Water Task Force (BWTF) at Ocean Institute under a partnership with Surfrider Foundation. BWTF is the Surfrider Foundation’s volunteer-run, water testing, education and advocacy program. The organization’s chapters use the program to alert citizens and officials in their communities about water quality problems by reporting pollution levels on Surfrider’s online database.

Every two weeks, and in the event of rainfall, Wong and Chuc obtain samples from Baby Beach, the dockside beach at Ocean Institute, and off the shore in the protected marine area on the other side of the jetty. The two researchers also tested a sample from the waterfall by Baby Beach during December’s heaviest rains, in order to compare pollution levels to the surrounding ocean.

The waterfall—made popular by social media—becomes prominent during rainfall and earlier this month, a sinkhole formed near the base, measuring 12 by 15 feet and 8 feet deep.

“We want to be able to provide this data so that people can make smarter decisions after heavy rain. It could be decisions about how long to wait after it rains to go back in the water . . .  or it could get people to think more about how we can reduce pollution,” Wong said.

Surfrider Foundation is allowing Ocean Institute to use its equipment for the water-quality testing. The Quanti-Tray sealer tightly seals down the tray of samples and the incubator houses the tray as it processes for 24 to 26 hours. While these two pieces of equipment save the institute money, there are still recurring costs to replace sample jars, graduated cylinders and beakers.

“Once we use a sample jar for a quality test, it can’t be used again for an official test. But we always look for ways to recycle and reuse,” Chuc said.

Chuc and Wong plan on saving equipment to reuse in mock experiments for demonstrations with classrooms or tours.

As for official tests, Wong has been consistently reporting her findings to the BWTF webpage at surfrider.org.

“When comparing the test samples side by side, you see a fair amount of pollution present in Baby Beach’s water. Fortunately, it dilutes by the dock and dilutes even more by the protected marine area,” Choc said. “But the results of the waterfall sample were daunting.”

Processed water samples are placed under a black light to see what level of pollution is present. The “wells” of water in a tray will glow if there is a presence of enterococci bacteria, a type of bacteria found in the gastrointestinal system and in fecal matter. The more glowing wells in the tray, the more enterococci. The waterfall sample taken in early December showed every well on the sample tray glowing under a black light.

“This made me really reevaluate how long people should wait to go in the water. There’s this unspoken ‘two-day’ rule surfers have before going back in the water. But what if we could provide real-time data that indicated we should wait longer?” Chuc said. “I know some surfers will go in the water sooner if the waves are perfect, but what if this information made them reconsider?”

While samples take at least a day before results are ready, Wong says that at this point the task force can analyze trends and make predictions to better serve the community. Due to the wait in getting results and the costliness of test taking, real-time data is not yet available to the public.

“Through citizen science initiatives, classroom tours and advocacy, we want to at least get people to think about working toward solutions,” Chuc said. “If our work can inspire a child to ask questions about how to reduce pollution, then we’ve done our jobs.”

Water testing demonstrations are not yet open to the public, but the public programs department at Ocean Institute aims to make them available by this summer. To monitor the institute’s water quality findings, visit surfrider.org.