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County Looks to Improve Water Quality With Faster Testing

A new testing system being considered by the county Board of Supervisors Tuesday may return water quality results in a matter of hours, not days, and increase beach access.

At its meeting Tuesday, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors is scheduled to consider a faster system for testing water quality at beaches.

Under a proposal by Supervisor Greg Cox, the board chairman, the county would start a yearlong study of a system that gives results on bacteria and other pollutants within four hours of testing.

The current system, which involves growing cultures, sometimes requires up to two days to get results.

The state-funded water quality testing program has been run by the county Department of Environmental Health since 1999.

When the testing finds contaminated water, after sewage spills or rain storms, the DEH post warning signs at affected beaches.

San Diego Coastkeeper also monitors water quality in watersheds across San Diego and posts closure information on their website.

Quicker testing could mean shorter closures in the future, said Jill Witowski, who heads Coastkeeper's water policy and programs. The testing could mean the difference between a beach being closed for a day or waiting the customary 72 hours after a rain event, she said.

"We think this is a fantastic development for anybody who uses our water and especially those of us who are frustrated and have to stay out of the water when it rains: surfers, swimmers and what not," Witowski said.

Beaches in La Jolla and Del Mar received A+s in Heal the Bay's 2011-12 Report Card.

If approved, the trial run would start on April 1 and cost $59,000, according to Cox.

"Residents and visitors deserve quick notification if the water quality at local beaches is unsafe, and our tourism economy depends on healthy beaches," Cox said in a memo to fellow board members. "By moving towards rapid detection methods for our beach water monitoring program, the county of San Diego will use the latest in science to protect the public and deliver reliable information."

An earlier trial of the quantitative polymerase chain reaction testing system by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that it works scientifically, but should be "deployed systematically to fit local needs," Cox said.

 

– City News Service contributed to this report.

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