Film School Blog

Urban Runoff's Risk to Surfers and Why I'm Expanding This PSA Into A Documentary

The most important lesson that was reinforced in making this project was to only pursue the films you have genuine passion for. Picking a cause that truly matters to you is your insurance: you won’t grow bored while making it or feel like it was a waste of time – even if it doesn’t turn out like you wanted it.  


In this case, surfing and the environment are two things I care about a lot. A few months ago, I learned you can’t go surfing in Southern California after it rains because of something called “urban runoff”. Urban runoff is the drainage of pollution, oil, trash picked up by rain water and carried into the ocean. This is a problem in major cities like Los Angeles and San Diego because they’re mostly covered in cement and pavement, and as a result, rainwater isn’t absorbed into the ground.

This is a rather disturbing realization of how profoundly we’ve affected our environment. The fact that I can’t even go out and do something I enjoy (like surfing) not one, not two, but three days after it rains here is just gross. No one should go in the water after it rains, but surfers are particularly at risk because they’re in the water year-round (winter is rainstorm season, after all) and for much longer periods at a time.

I started getting Erin Brockovich af looking into this further, and was shocked to find very little information. It seems like this issue isn’t really talked about; it’s just something that you either know about or you don’t. That doesn’t seem sufficient considering how potentially harmful the water is after it rains. There have been a plethora of cases of ear, throat, and eye infections, and even more extreme cases of surfer Chris O’Connel having to get his arm amputated after it became infected, someone contracting hepatitis, and another person being hospitalized for two weeks with a bacterial infection. (More information on these cases here: http://www.surfline.com/community/whoknows/whoknows.cfm?id=1157)

Clearly, this is a problem.

What surprised me even more is that given the limited amount of information about this, the information that is out there is pretty staggering. Moreover, when Lukas and I went to El Porto (a popular surf spot next door to the Hyperion sewage treatment plant) a day after it rained in Los Angeles, we were both dumbfounded to see how many surfers were out there. Our camera attracted some attention and when I told them what we we doing and whether or not they were aware of this risk, some said they didn’t know, or worse, some did know about the “rule”, but presumed the probability of them getting sick was pretty low.

The lovely El Porto. 

The lovely El Porto. 

If there is anything I learned while scouring the depths of the internet researching this, it’s that Los Angeles is probably the most polluted city in Southern California, and that any surf spot near some sort of drainage facility is WAY more likely to expose surfers to these contaminants. Guess what, El Porto? You’re in LA and next to Hyperion. Definitely a bad mix.

In making this PSA, I left with far more questions than answers. I really could not believe how stubborn these surfers were, but didn’t feel like it was completely their fault. There is little to no communication about these risks. I wouldn’t have even known about this problem unless I had been with a SoCal local who told me about it while it was raining in January. Why are there no signs posted on beaches explaining to surfers what urban runoff is and what hazards there are?

Surfrider Foundation seemed to be the only source of information for this, and they brought up this point too with The Orange County Department of Health. Their response?

"We just assume all surfers know that the water is polluted after it rains."

What?

I can hear my mom’s voice now saying “to assume is to make an ass out of u and me” in the back of my head.

That’s completely irresponsible. How are we supposed to stay safe if the very establishments we trust to ensure that safety haven’t even initiated a dialogue in the first place?

I really think this issue is worth exploring, and I feel compelled to expand this PSA into a documentary. I wrote numerous emails and tweeted the video link to different people and organizations who seemed to be the few spearheading any movement to raise awareness. Rick Wilson from Surfrider wrote me back a long email answering all my questions, and Chad Nelsen, the founder of Surfrider, retweeted my video. I have a phone interview with Ken Schiff, the Deputy Director of SCCWRP (Southern California Coastal Water Research Project) tomorrow. SCCWRP and Surfrider are working together to release a Surfer Health Study that will more closely examine what these viruses and bacteria are and how likely it is that a surfer can contract them.

Lukas and I had to turn this PSA into class before I got Rick’s email, so it’s missing some pertinent information:

-The three-day time frame IS accurate.

-Aside from just staying out of the water, surfers should wear ear plugs, shower/rinse off immediately after getting out of the water, wash hands before eating or touching your mouth, eyes, ears, etc., don’t go surfing with open wounds. Vaccinations are an option, as well.

My questions as to whether or not something can be done about the pollution that’s already in the ocean or how we can prevent more urban runoff have yet to be answered, but I’ll be sure to bring that up to Ken tomorrow.

This is why it’s important to only spend your time doing the things you want to do, and to not wait for permission to do those things. Lukas and I shot almost all of this in one morning -- minus the stock footage which is the shitty (lol no pun intended) urban runoff stuff-- which we intend to replace with higher quality shots next time it rains, and edited it in a couple hours. I spent probably twice as much time researching this issue and writing emails, and now I’m in the beginning stages of making a documentary about something that matters to me. Equally important is getting your film noticed. Social media is a powerful tool that can enable people to be informed and involved. I cannot emphasize enough how crucial these lessons are in filmmaking and I’m so thankful to have grasped this concept early on.