BY JOSHUA MOLINA
NEWS-PRESS STAFF WRITER
In a move that could force a sweeping change in how Santa Barbara manages its polluted creeks, the city may team up with UCSB to perform DNA research to find out how much of the pollution is from human fecal material.
Santa Barbara's creeks -- Mission, Arroyo Burro and Sycamore -- are all polluted to varying degrees and the pollution often leads to beach closures during the summer.
The source of the pollution is largely a mystery, but there is much speculation, ranging from leaks in the city's sewer system and animal waste to urban runoff and illegal creek dumping.
"Everyone has suspicions," said Daniel Hochman, owner of El Prado Inn and chairman of the city's creeks committee. "Everyone has their pet idea as to what is causing the pollution. But this is a way to find out. Without this kind of information, all we have are theories."
For the past three years, the city has grappled with various ways to reduce the pollution. The DNA approach has not been tried in Santa Barbara County, and similar research efforts are ongoing in only a handful of locations around the state.
The goal is to confirm the presence of human fecal material in the city's creeks, specifically Mission and Arroyo Burro. Then the researchers hope to determine its effect on the watershed as it goes downstream.
The research project would last for three years, said Jill Zachary, the city's creeks program manager, and would cost about $150,000 in city money the first year. In future years, the city would obtain grants.
The City Council must approve the program, which would start this spring. The matter will go before the creeks committee on Wednesday.
By pinpointing the sources of pollution, Ms. Zachary said the city can focus long-term projects on tackling those issues. For example, if there is a high presence of human fecal material in the creek, it might mean serious leaks in the city's sewer system.
"The reason to do the DNA research is to determine the sources of bacterial pollution in our creeks and in our oceans and our beaches," Ms. Zachary said. "We know there is bacterial pollution. We don't know how much of it is a human source, how much is dogs and cats, and how much is just natural, wildlife, birds or other sources."
Cleaning up Santa Barbara's creeks is an issue with widespread community interest. There is great pressure on the city of Santa Barbara to reduce pollution and improve water quality. Three years ago, voters approved a 2 percent tax on hotel guests to help with the creeks effort.
Since the passage of Measure B, Santa Barbara has set up a creeks program with a $2 million budget. The money is used for cleanup and water-quality tasks, including street sweeping, trash pickup, storm drain filters, public outreach, water-quality monitoring and other programs.
Since the creeks program began, critics have contended that money is being wasted on too many preventative programs and not enough is spent on cleaning up the creeks and broader street-sweeping programs.
In response to those concerns, the city attempted to install an ultraviolet disinfection system at Arroyo Burro Lagoon to help filter the water before it flows into the ocean.
But some environmentalists panned that idea, claiming that killing the bacteria at the end of the watershed sends a message that it's OK to pollute the creeks because it will get filtered before it flows into the ocean anyway. The city still is seeking final approval on the ultraviolet system.
As for the DNA program, the city hopes to team up with Trish Holden, UCSB associate professor of environmental biology.
"It would be great to be able to do this research here," she said. "These are state-of-the art questions. How do we find human waste? The other state-of-the-art question is if we do find it, how does it change from upstream to downstream?"