Awareness,  environment,  ocean,  Science,  Surf

Rain Drops | Runoff | Surfing On Sewage In The Drop Spot

Surf at your own peril.

Heavy rain spatters against contaminated city streets, which are designed to avoid flooding by directing all stormwater toward the ocean.  The filthy detritus carries with it a host of insidious bacteria, trash, petroleum pollutants, metals, toxins, and viruses as it flushes curbs, sidewalks, gutters, creeks, and rivers down through drainage pipes until it all spills out to sea.

Microbial contamination levels drastically spike when rain washes pollutants off the land into the coastal zone.  These pathogenic microbes in the water can cause surfers a multitude of sicknesses such as gastrointestinal illness, skin rashes, open wound infections, earache/infections, sinus pain/infections, fever, and upper respiratory infections…or worse.

[SURFER MISCONCEPTION #1] Only the first storms of the season contaminate the ocean. These initial rains collect most of the waste from the streets and sewers, “cleaning” them for later storms.

2016.  Alan Avery sat on his front porch watching the lawn sculptures morph into three-story giants stomping down the street.  Police arrived, recognized Alan was in a paranoid state of hallucination and needed immediate medical attention.  Doctors told him a few more hours without treatment, and he would have died.  He was diagnosed with necrotizing fasciitis (the clinical term for flesh-eating bacteria).  A small cut on his abdomen, which he got while surfing, had become infected.  The hallucinations were caused by sepsis (pus formation in an infected part of the body resulting in blood poisoning).  “I had 11 surgeries.  I spent a year in a wheelchair and walker.  I’m lucky to be alive,” says Alan.

Many types of EVERYDAY BACTERIA—group A strep, E.coli, Staphylococcal, and Vibrio (a particularly virulent strain FOUND IN SALTWATER)—cause necrotizing fasciitis. These bacteria THRIVE IN WET ENVIRONMENTS. The NF bacteria ATTACK the fascia—which is between your skin and your muscles—completely KILLING it and moving on RAPIDLY. Antibiotics can only stabilize necrotizing fasciitis. INFECTED TISSUE HAS TO BE SURGICALLY REMOVED, and if the NF bacteria spread over an entire area then whole LIMBS MUST BE AMPUTATED.

All of these pathogens are making surfers sick.

According to a study published by The American Society of Microbiology, in which testing for pathogenic vibrios occurred at Doheny State Beach and Avalon Harbor, surfers are 100 times more likely than ocean swimmers to get sick. To alert surfers and other beachgoers to potential pathogens in coastal water, state regulators have created water-quality standards that are based on concentrations of “fecal indicator bacteria.”  Enterococcus (a bacteria found in the intestines of humans and animals) is measured because it universally co-occurs with pathogens in human sewage.  It can also come from the feces of a wide variety of other animals—dogs, cats, birds, and so on—almost none of which contain the same level of pathogens as human sewage, but all of which get washed down storm drains to the coastal zone when it rains.

[SURFER MISCONCEPTION #2] Hot, sunny days kill bacteria with UV exposure.

2015.  Niko Traubman had a “flesh-eating” bacteria removed from his butt-cheek after surfing at Caridiff Reef.  The surgery left him with a “raquet-ball” sized hole in his leg.  Diagnosed with Staph, the infection threatened to turn septic, and Niko required multiple follow-up procedures to remove infected tissue and repack his wound.  Staph infections tend to stay with victims—for life.

The Surfer Health Study:

A three-year study by the Surfrider Foundation, University of California, Berkely-School of Public Health, SCCRP and Soller Environmental, LLC. examining the illness rates associated with surfing during wet weather examined 654 surfers over 10,081 surf sessions in San Diego from the winter seasons of 2013-2014 and 2014-2015.  Here’s what researchers found:

  • There’s a 3% chance of contracting an illness if you go surfing during or within 72 hours after it rains.
  • A 2.5% chance of infection if surfing in dry weather.
  • Surf spots with high runoff levels—locations with higher FIB measurements—amplify the threat of serious infection.
  • FIB readings decreased as researchers moved further away from runoff areas (which for this study was Tourmaline Surf Park in Pacific Beach and North Ocean Beach).

After reading this and assessing the risks, you may still be considering paddling out in the rain for a session.

[SURFER MISCONCEPTION #3] Vitamins, up-to-date immunizations, Emergen-C, gargling with hydrogen peroxide or some other holistic remedy will suffice to fight bacterial infection.

2014.  Three surfers were stricken by pathogens from a post-rain session at Sunset Cliffs.  One of the pathogens was reported to the Centers For Disease Control as Vibriosis—commonly known to cause Cholera.  Barry Ault, 71-year-old Sunset local and former competitor, suffered flu-like symptoms which escalated to vomitting, diarrhea, and violent tremors resulting in his death.

“Stormwater is a resource,”

Says Greg Abbott, a park ecologist at Border Field State Park and former California lifeguard, “And we’re wasting it, wasting money, and contaminating the ocean.”  The park is within the city limits of Imperial Beach in San Diego County, next to the suburb of Playas de Tijuana in Mexico.  There, ecologists and engineers have constructed a “sediment basin” (or pond) to capture toxic overflow—contaminated runoff that flows into the U.S. from Tijuana’s unplanned neighborhoods—before it reaches the ocean.  Even though there is also an international waste management treatment facility, the Tijuana River and Imperial Beach are one of the most polluted coastal zones in California.  Water quality is so poor there that beaches are closed more than a third of the year—and surfers continue to be threatened by a host of illnesses.

SURFER MISCONCEPTION #4) The water isn’t as bad as it’s hyped up to be. I’ve surfed this break my whole life, I’m used to it—practically immune.

2008.  Chris Schumacher contracted a sinus infection after surfing Imperial Beach which resulted in a growth protuding from his eye and nearly cost him his eyesight.  He was hospitalized for three months and doctor’s had to surgically remove infected flesh from his sinuses.

There are better ways to fight ocean pollution.

Rather than beach closures and waiting periods there is a myriad of “green infrastructure” that cities can implement to capture stormwater runoff in place and filter it using processes that mimic nature.

For example:

  • Rain Gardens—native shrubs, flowers, etc. planted in a depression at the bottom of a slope designed to capture runoff and allow stormwater to soak back into the soil.
  • Bioswales—landscape elements consisting of gently sloped sides, filled with vegetation or compost, designed to concentrate or remove debris and pollution out of surface runoff water.
  • “Green roofs”—capture rainwater in large barrels on top of large buildings such as hospitals.
  • Infiltration trenches—simply catch water and allow it to sink back into the ground.
  • Underground filters—separate sediment, oil, and bacteria from rainwater.

Cities such as Philadelphia, Washington D.C., New York, Portland have spent billions on creating a network of thousands of “green infrastructure” projects.  One such city is Grand Traverse Bay, Michigan which has 132 miles of coastline.  San Diego has just 70 miles.  Grand Traverse Bay protects its coastal environment with the $1.18 billion that it earns from its entire tourism economy.  California beaches alone generate $10 billion annually.  Yet San Diego does not have a “green infrastructure” network in place because city and state officials are unsure if the risks to our coastal environments or the risks to public health fully justify the costs.

So, next time, before you paddle out for a surf…

Polluted runoff can be recycled into drinking water easier and cheaper than sewage.

Check the water quality at your beach.

Heal The Bay, “Beach Report Card” (West Coast)

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Beacon (East & West Coast)

…and if the water is too toxic to rip some waves then consider joining up with organizations like The Surfrider Foundation or WiLDCOAST and help put pressure on your local congressperson to make changes for the betterment of our Ocean.

Or do something else fun.




Thank you for reading!  It’s been raining a lot this past week and I’m ready for a surf!  Follow, Like, Comment, Share.  ‘Click’ on anything highlighted yellow in this amazing article (or ‘click’ photos) for further reading and viewing pleasure…watch the surfing zombies video!!!

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A California native, he grew up surfing in Santa Cruz and has traveled to Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador. He currently surfs and writes in Oceanside, CA.


  • Cindy Walden

    Wow, yuck and super gross the runoff damage/danger! Solid confirmation to stay out of the ocean during such times! The lack of green infrastructure is beyond inexcusable! Appreciate yet another great, informative and inspiring article.

  • Karl

    I was recently in California and was warned about this risk. The surf shop employee told me it was kind of a low risk at the time, since the rains had started a couple of months back and most of the nasty stuff had already run off. He said to avoid swallowing any water. This immediately made me think of one remedy for this situation. This applies to ingested water, not infection from cuts. Take activated charcoal, which is available at any drug store. It will absorb any bad stuff that happens to get in to your digestive system. This stuff works like magic, absorbing any nasties that creep into your gut or intestines. It’s what they use at hospitals for overdoses of drugs or alcohol. I took a couple of capsules before surfing and a couple afterwards. Whenever I get any kind of digestive upset, this stuff works like a miracle. Hope this helps.

  • msjadeli

    Thank you for this article. I live about 3 hours from Grand Traverse Bay. How encouraging to know they pour some of those tourist dollars into keeping the toxins and biohazards out of the water. Another big hazard for fresh water in MI is the salt and other ice melting chemicals they dump on the roads in the winter. I also live near Lake MI. Every year I see literal mountains of salt that ends up dumped in fresh water through the storm drains. One place I know that has a lot of city-encouraged rain gardens is Madison, Wisconsin.

  • Henry Lewis

    Excellent presentation of the facts on surfing and swimming in contaminated water. While ocean water contamination is common in the USA, travelers should be especially aware of this at beaches in Mexico and other developing countries where there will most likely be no warning signs posted. I picked up a serious throat infection from body surfing in rough seas in Sayulita, just north of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico where seasonal rains wash raw sewage down rivers and directly into the sea. The same is true of the beaches in Puerto Vallarta where I lived for 8 months. Travelers should remain aware.

    • thewaldenword

      Thanks Henry, good to know! Last year I was surfing in El Salvador 🇸🇻 and the year before that, Guatemala 🇬🇹 both times near a river mouth. Fortunately, it was dry season but judging by all the trash up and down the beaches I can only imagine how disgusting it must get after a heavy rain 🌧

  • Soul Gifts

    We sure know how to soil our own nest.We have had our own near death brush with death right here in our own neighbourhood with sepsis. Two people. Not from pollution, but nevertheless, it is so scary how quickly it can take hold.
    We need to clean up our home – quickly! Even our feathered, furred and finned friends are better at it than us humans 🤢

    • thewaldenword

      You’re welcome. Water quality is something that surfers think about often, especially when it rains. I just wanted to know the truth and what risks are involved in surfing post rain 🌧

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