IMAGE: SIGN AT BEACH WARNING OF NO SWIMMING
Reed Saxon  /  AP
Los Angeles-area beaches with poor water quality have signs like this one posted to warn visitors.
updated 9/15/2006 10:45:07 AM ET 2006-09-15T14:45:07

Regional water officials voted Thursday to fine cities surrounding Santa Monica Bay up to $10,000 a day if the water at their beaches does not meet clean-water standards.

Conservationists hailed the decision by the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board as the strongest regulation to protect beachgoers in the United States. They expect it to be the first of many.

"I'm very happy for the future of the county and for future generations that can finally look toward clean beaches," said Tracy Egoscue, executive director of Santa Monica Baykeeper. "This is a trail blazer."

The ongoing effort to clean up the area's bacteria pollution stems out of a larger plan outlined in a 1999 settlement of a lawsuit filed by environmental groups. Government officials and the groups worked out a schedule to set limits on a variety of pollutants that end up in Los Angeles and Ventura counties. These include bacteria, trash, toxic metals and chemical pollutants.

Local government must meet "total maximum daily loads" or limits on these pollutants that make their way into the county's numerous watersheds. Setting and enforcing bacteria limits is the first of about 100 of the pollutant limits that conservationists hope will eventually be enforced.

During the 13-hour meeting, Los Angeles County was repeatedly admonished by water control board members. County officials have said they support the clean water standards and have spent $20 million on diversion, but were accused of trying to delay the decision.

Among the residents who pleaded with board members to save local beaches included an aging surfer who had lost his right ankle to a staph infection and a 14-year-old aspiring marine biologist whose mother won't allow her in the ocean because of pollution.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger also weighed in, sending a letter urging the board to enforce the standards and "demonstrate your strong commitment to protecting beach water quality." The governor cited a UCLA study showing that 1.5 million beachgoers get sick from swimming in Los Angeles and Orange County every year.

Although it's been seven years since the federal consent decree, many of the beaches still aren't clean.

The 13 cities that encircle Santa Monica Bay were given until this summer to do something about the bacteria pollution streaming into the waters. The rule applied to the 44 beaches that stretch from the Los Angeles-Ventura County line to just south of the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

Some of the areas' most famous beaches including Malibu's legendary surf spot, Surfrider Beach, repeatedly received poor grades in Heal the Bay's annual beach report card. Last summer, the group found that 37 percent of the county's beaches were frequently unsafe for swimming.

Throughout the state, local government have been required to post signs warning visitors about water quality problems, but often have not been required to fix the problem.

Most contamination happens during winter when heavy rains overload storm drain and sewage systems, washing waste directly into the sea, officials said. Swimming in such waters can cause gastrointestinal, respiratory and other illnesses.

"Southern California is defined by many things — Hollywood, palm trees," said David Beckman, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "But certainly the beach and the fact that in the 21st century people can't go to the beach without assurances they won't get sick or skin rashes isn't worthy of our society."

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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