Overall, recreational beach water quality remains an issue of concern in Southern California and across the globe. Many factors come into play when determining water quality, including physical issues such as the myriad sources that contribute pollution to the site and financial and political issues that control the way water quality is monitored and determined. Current national regulations require the monitoring of fecal indicator bacteria in order to determine recreational water quality. However, it is also important to identify biological and geographical sources of pollution to consistently impaired locations. A commonly applied approach to meet the goals of source identification is to sample sites that have been high in FIB for further study. A tiered approach such as this, however, assumes a correlation between FIB and the sources of interest in the watershed. The research described in this dissertation tests this assumption in two Southern California watersheds, Santa Monica Canyon and Ventura Harbor. In both cases, a tiered approach to sampling using FIB as a first tier to guide sampling would have failed to identify sources of human fecal pollution (as identified by the presence of the human-associated Bacteroides marker HF183).
Every watershed is a distinct environment that has different potential sources of bacteria and many factors contributing to the persistence of the bacteria. Rather than attempting to apply an indicator that has worked as a first tier in other watersheds, it would be better to have as a first tier an in-depth study of the watershed using historical data or local experts to provide information on the most likely sources of pollution in the watershed. Using this information it would be possible to design a study using FIB and one or more source-associated parameters to identify specific sources of pollution in the watershed. In addition, sampling FIB and other parameters such as HF183 allow the application of other microbial source tracking tools including indicator ratios and detection frequencies. Source identification studies do not necessarily have to be long-term to identify consistent sources of pollution. For example, within the first four months of sampling at Ventura, the increased frequency of detection of HF183 at the Marina Dock sample location was apparent, and a dry weather influx of HF183 was seen in the Keys channels.
In addition to the many sources of FIB to the environment such as storm drains, leaking sewers, and wildlife, there are important environmental reservoirs such as sand and seaweed that can foster FIB growth and persistence in the environment. As such, it is important to understand the effect of different factors on the ability of bacteria to survive and persist in these reservoirs. Microcosm experiments conducted during the course of this dissertation research found that in dry beach sand (0.1% moisture), the addition of moisture was detrimental to the survival of the indicators studied (General Bacteroidales, E. coli, and enterococci). While increased moisture was not always detrimental to bacterial survival, these results point to the ability of bacteria to persist for long periods of time in beach environments under in-situ conditions (including dry sand). These findings point to the importance of understanding the behavior of indicator bacteria populations that have evolved to survive in environmental conditions so that their potential impact on overlying or adjacent water quality can be better understood.
In summation, results from this research point to the importance of selecting indicators and sample locations that are most relevant to watershed concerns rather than using a first tier such as FIB to preferentially select sites for further analysis. Measuring a marker for human fecal pollution in both watershed studies provided useful information for potential human inputs that would have been missed if sites were chosen based on high FIB levels. In addition it is very important to understand the contribution of different reservoirs, such as sand, in the study area to the observed microbial pollution. Overall, these results point to the need for further examination of the ability of bacteria to survive under various environmental conditions in both water and sand, using both environmental microbial populations and populations from likely sources such as human sewage.