Jan 12, 2007

Surfer Sues California Government Over Dirty Water

A surfer from Carlsbad, Calif., has sued local governments and two nonprofit groups, stating that he contracted a potentially deadly brain infection after being exposed to sewage while surfing.

According to Voice of San Diego, 33-year-old Daniel Braff contracted brainstem encephalitis after surfing at Cardiff Reef in May 2005. The brain inflammation has cost Braff over $500,000 in medical expenses. The condition has also affected his speech, motor skills and he now must use a wheel chair.

The lawsuit alleges that two sewage spills in Escondido Creek in 2005, which drains into San Elijo Lagoon and the Pacific Ocean, created harmful amounts of bacteria in the ocean. Braff surfed in the water and accidentally swallowed some of the contaminated water.

The Voice of San Diego reports that the suit contends that the San Elijo Joint Powers Authority and cities of Solana Beach and Encinitas were responsible for the spills. It alleges that the San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy and Escondido Creek Conservancy, nonprofits responsible for maintaining the preserves, did not fail swimmers and surfers the risks involved in entering the water.

A spill in January 2005 discharged 280,000 gallons of partially treated sewage into the creek, resulting in a 8-mile stretch of beach being closed for seven days. Then, in February, another spill of 73,500 gallons closed the beach for three days. The beaches were reopened, but put under an advisory in late March due to high bacteria counts.

The beaches were reopened March 31, and high bacteria levels were not noted again until about a week after Braff surfed. The county, which has been named in the suit, samples 10 stations for water quality weekly in the area and is responsible for issuing beach closures.

The city of Escondido was not named in the suit, which agreed to a $1.1 million settlement with the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board in part for discharging the sewage into the creek. The settlement involved more than just the two spills.

Public health experts point out that it will be difficult to prove the connection between the spill and the illness. The Voice of San Diego reports that it is difficult for surfers to win a suit like this, as most high-profile local clean-water suits have targeted reform, not personal payouts.