A wave of relief is in the forecast for Ventura County beaches: ocean water quality testing is set to resume this summer.

After the go-ahead from a regional water board early this month, county environmental health officials now look to pick up a portion of water pollution monitoring that was halted completely more than six months ago, when state funding for the project was rescinded due to the budget crisis.

By July 1, it’s hoped that a limited sampling of some beaches will somehow compensate for the lack of testing performed on as many as 50 shores countywide.

“Our efforts will focus on those beaches … that have been the most heavily used,” says William Stratton, a project manager with environmental health. “At a minimum, we’ll have a reduced program after July.”

Testing will include spots like Rincon and Hollywood beaches, Surfers Knoll, Silver Strand and Mandos Cove, among others, Stratton said. According to data from Stratton’s department, there sites were last tested officially by environmental health in October 2008.

At that point, Assembly Bill 411 had mandated that those beaches and others have county testing and the results posted publicly. But just as soon as a new contract was signed off, approved by legislators and ready to go, worsening financial matters at the state level left matters at an impasse, and testing was stalled indefinitely.

Stratton says more than $900,000 in total statewide funding from AB 411 was held in limbo. Environmental health’s hands were tied on the ability to perform testing. The best Stratton’s department could do was issue health notices after rainstorms, warning the public not to venture into the water for 72 hours after a storm event, when the risk of pollutants is highest.

Not more than a month ago, it seemed as though this no-test winter of discontent stretch into Memorial Day and continue through the busy summertime coastal peak. Beachgoers, avid surfers and swimmers would be bathing in local waters with no knowledge of how clean or dirty, healthy or unhealthy the ocean was at any given moment.

It was enough to irk Mark Gold, president of water watchdog group Heal the Bay, when he and other local city representatives went before the state water board two weeks ago and stated their case for continued water monitoring.

“Beautiful day, beautiful weekend coming up, a lot of people in the water, and the public’s not being informed of water quality,” Gold said. “Bottom line is, people have to swim at their own risk.”

Gold’s appearance before the board, along with city managers and other officials, was part of a plaintive effort to obtain a new stormwater permit for Ventura County.

Crafting such a permit was a “huge, lengthy process,” says Rick Cole, city manager for Ventura.

Ventura County got the board’s approval, 5-1, for a new permit that includes new standards for collecting and treating stormwater runoff. By all accounts, according to Cole, beach water testing was the least detailed agreement in the protracted permitting process, yet its treatment was no less important. A compromise to have a portion of beaches approved for monitoring is a big coup for local leaders, especially in a region that consistently scores high on Heal the Bay’s ocean quality report card.

“It was part of a much larger understanding that came about as a result of nine months of dialogue,” Cole said.

Currently, county public works performs its own separate monitoring of about 10 beaches, limiting testing to those that are most important — those impacted by storm drain and creek runoff.

“For them to agree to 10 is 10 more than they were planning. It’s a big commitment on their part,” says Gold. “It’s good leadership on Ventura County Public Works to step up.”

But if all goes according to plan this summer, expect the number of beaches tested to triple when environmental health steps back into the game.

Arne Anselm, a water quality monitoring manager for Ventura County, estimates that $70,000 in state dollars typically goes toward beach testing. According to Anselm, when that money is finally earmarked by state officials, the next step is for approval from the county’s board of supervisors.

As for reaching an agreement with the state to pay for testing of the full roster of beaches in Ventura County, Gold of Heal the Bay and Stratton of county environmental health are less than optimistic. Gold remarked that even though negotiations break down, and that fiscal roadblocks are chronically evident, summertime tourists won’t put their beach plans on hold.

“Bureaucracy. It’s happening really slow,” says Gold. “It’s not a matter of anybody saying the money isn’t there. We keep hearing everything’s going good, and we respond back, ‘When’s the monitoring going to start?’ It’s not like everyone’s going to wait until monitoring begins.”

“This is the third time we’ve been promised an agreement over the past three or four months,” says Stratton. “Hopefully, this one will find its way to us.”   

paul@vcreporter.com