Scientists Detect Human Waste in Mudslide Debris at Goleta Beach

Goleta Beach with UCSB in the background (courtesy photo)

By Harrison Tasoff, UC Santa Barbara

When mudslides swept through Montecito in January 2018, Santa Barbara County was left with the subsequent task of determining where to relocate all the displaced debris. A propitious solution presented itself: the material could be used to build up some of the local beaches that have been eroding into the ocean.

The county quickly began transporting material to enrich the popular Goleta Beach, situated just east of UC Santa Barbara, where coastal erosion has been an ongoing issue. 

For a number of years, scientists at the university have tracked the water quality in the vicinity, and the relocated debris gave them a new research opportunity. They were perfectly positioned to monitor how the new sediment affected the location.

Their findings were at first a bit alarming. The fill showed evidence of human waste contamination. Fortunately, however, the contamination appeared to dissipate after only a couple of weeks. The researchers’ study appears in the journal Water Research.

Dong Li, of the university’s Earth Research Institute, and his collaborators began monitoring the water quality just a few days after the county started transporting sediment to the beach, and continued taking measurements for about six months. During this time, they detected a number of bacteria associated with fecal matter, Li explained, but the source of these bacteria was not clear at the time. “They might have come from human waste, which usually contains human pathogens, or animal waste, which generally poses much less risk for human health,” he said.

Further testing revealed human waste as the source. This didn’t come as a total surprise to the researchers. The debris flow had damaged or destroyed a number of septic tanks and sewer systems, which likely allowed waste to leak into the sediment.

That said, the microbial contamination declined relatively quickly after the sediment was added, probably due to the fresh, nearshore water brought in by ocean currents. “The fact that ocean currents remediated the contamination after just one to two weeks was really astonishing,” Li remarked.

Based on their results, Li believes contamination from enrichment projects like this is highly unlikely to pose a long-term threat to public health, at least from a microbial perspective. However, he noted, in the future, landslide sediment should be tested to determine its potential microbial risks to human health before it is disposed of in this manner.

“Our group is continuing research related to surf zone microbial water quality in Santa Barbara, such as at East Beach and Leadbetter Beach,” Li added, “so this study provides good practice in combining diverse microbial methods to understand the source of microbial contamination in surf zone water.”


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  1. Montecito residents, among the most wealthy in the nation, didn’t get rich by spending money on other people’s needs. They have protected their septic systems for decades instead of requiring the construction of a sewage treatment plant or at least a connection to the Santa Barbara system. They have protected their choice to use water without concern and have recently conned the City of Santa Barbara into basically allowing them free access to the city’s desal plant product (mostly because SB has to produce this expensive stuff under their absurd contractual obligation with the desal company that they panicked into signing and need a place to get rid of it with some revenue). For years they had water without even metering it. They have always kept their tax base for themselves as much as possible–hence big bucks for Montecito Union School for example. This is just how rich and powerful people stay that way.

  2. Something on the order of 30,000 or so cubic yards of mud was dumped on Goleta beach. Efforts were made to inspect the loads of mud in order to prevent debris from being dumped on the beach. For comparison, MILLIONS of cubic yards of mud and debris flowed into the ocean during the Montecito debris flow event.

  3. @3:49 First of all, the people of Montecito had nothing to do with where the county decided to dump mudslide debris. It was hauled all over the county to various places. Second, the people of Montecito suffered a massive tragedy. This was the worst disaster the county had ever experienced in number of deaths. People were buried for god sake. It was an emergency to get that debris out and it was everyone’s civic duty to help with that need. So actually we should “shut up and take it”

  4. ZENYATTA19 – I am well aware of this tragedy. What I’m talking about is the bitter resistance I and others received when we were upset about the mud being dumped on our precious beach. The response to our calls for more thought and oversight were much like yours…. “Montecito suffered” and, like you say “Goleta should should up and take it.” That’s not neighborly, nor humane. We’ll see what the courts say about this. This was a crappy (pun intended) idea from the start.

  5. So, you’re saying the residents of Montecito elected people who did a good job representing them, while the people of Santa Barbara elected people who did a poor job representing them? I think that has more to do with voting habits than wealth, power, or privilege.

  6. If I could afford to live somewhere in Montecito, I would buy a house that had Island/Mountain views, at least four bedrooms (each w/priv. full bath), and a big ‘ol pool that I could use and had easy access for the firefighters to use all the water in my pool for their trucks/copters. I would also prefer to have plenty of local sandstone for steps, benches, retaining walls, and so on. For now, I will live within my means and enjoy what I have….and not give a tinker’s cuss about what other’s have.

  7. Oh yes, I remember well…. Supervisor Wolf was verbally castigated by Public Works, they trough a whisper campaign, when she dared challenge the wisdom of using Goleta Beach as a dumping ground- and again when they found a way to use any open county land in the Second District as a dumping ground for Montecito mud/waste. It’s time for the so-called environmentalists to step up and not worry about their big donors from Montecito but rather advocate for the values they espouse

  8. And ‘they’ said all the runoff was ‘tested’ before use to bolster beaches in Goleta. Not sure anyone believed ‘they’ could possible test all the runoff they were desperate to find a place for. Guess ‘they’ thought Goleta would be a gullible recipient? Story moral.. runoff must stayeth to bolster beaches closest to where runoff runeth. No sharing fecal material please. Thank you UCSB scientists.

  9. Not one of you read that the conclusion was that this was not a threat to humans? Because the conclusion of the study was how fast the levels were washed out by water flows.
    There is no current issue reported here.

  10. OMG I wondered if anyone would have the gall to say “no problem”. I don’t care whether its a day, or two weeks as noted in the PR- of human waste relocated from Montecito to Goleta Beach. Go back to the BS assurances in 2018 when many were asking, and commenting about the risk from septic tanks, etc. County made it sound almost impossible, and said any waste was bird waste. Regional Water Board, Coastal Commission- do your thing. No other County dumps its waste in truckloads onto a beach

  11. Who is it that keeps promoting the red herring “Montecito was just helping to build the beach”? Whatever is dumped on our Goleta beach must be free of fecal waste. Dumping waste on our beach should be litigated and complicit County officials should be investigated and charged with criminal offenses if they are found to exist.

  12. homes were damaged, which includes sewer piping and tanks.
    key blurb in the article though –
    “The fact that ocean currents remediated the contamination after just one to two weeks was really astonishing”

  13. It doesn’t take a PhD to figure out that whatever was dumped onto Goleta beach was toxic as all get out. This article should not come as a surprise to anyone, it’s a belated statement of the painfully obvious. The question is: If, when the winter swells come next season, there’s a firing right working on that little point they created, would you go surf it?

  14. During the time they were still searching for bodies and adding more debris to the debris flow area would have been counterproductive…plus they did not have safe or reasonable access to the Montecito beaches- shame on you…

  15. They are not paying through the nose for it, or if they are so are we as they are paying what the city users are paying and the city claims that is a bargain (no). But the ‘free’ thing is that the city built the connection to Montecito without any contribution from Montecito. This had no other purpose than to serve that community but they did not pay for it. Hence the phrase “free access.”

  16. This further underlines the epic fail by Heal the Ocean and the Surfrider Foundation. I’ve donated to both in the past but their silence on this is as disgusting as the Montecito mud dumped on Goleta Beach. Neither entity will ever get another nickle from me or my family.

  17. Montecito will not have “free access” to the desal plant; if/when the contract gets finalized for delivery of desal water to Montecito, the MWD (Mont. water district – Montecito is unincorporated and except for Williams on the BOS, has no elected representatives, except the water and sanitary boards) will pay heavily for that water.

  18. Because the Goleta Beach needed the building up. Memories seem to be so short — it was not so long ago of weeks and months and months of discussion that it was probable of having “managed retreat” and the entire Goleta Beach would be abandoned, and with it all the critical buried infrastructure be moved.

  19. Would you rather there be no Goleta Beach or have some of the fill be (temporarily) contaminated? The testing started apparently in the early spring of 2018, continued for 5 months, stopping in the summer of 2018 — dates would have been helpful in this story. As the scientist involved said, “microbial contamination declined relatively quickly” — probably by now almost two years later, there’s none that can be found. Hopefully, the water off Goleta Beach will be checked again soon now that this story is known.

  20. Lobby county and state legislators and whoever is writing new legislation. That’s what interest groups do. “Rules” change during a disaster. It’s not Surf Riders & Heal the Ocean’s fault. They still work t heir butts off. Don’t complain – get involved. At least know what it takes to make change!

  21. After every rain storm they detect fecal matter in the ocean. Every one. And they tell people to avoid going into the ocean for a few days afterwards… And here people are upset by citing a study whose author states “it is highly unlikely to pose a long-term threat to public health, at least from a microbial perspective” …. If you can type you can read so maybe spend a little time reading the article, not just the headline and think for a few minutes before typing, talking or screaming at the sky. Did you also know that the ocean is where we pump sewage as a society? Yup. The pipes run straight out from the plant… Did you also know that its legal to pump your sewage from your boat directly into the ocean 3 miles off shore? Or how about that surfer at Campus Point who pooped in their wetsuit yesterday or the baby in diapers splashing in the breakers? Regardless, nothing about Goleta beach is pristine or even natural. Its a man made beach on the edge of industrial oil operations with a commercial restaurant and a slew of old pipes, pilings and dirty sand (pumped into place). Oh, not too mention a small city and an airport… Not everything needs to be a cause.

  22. We are all ok being locked in our homes by the government for a “flu” with a mortality rate well below 1% but go absolutely crazy over the “microbial contamination declined relatively quickly” as stated by the UCSB Scientist. It really is time for people in this community to concentrate on real issues.

  23. Does anyone know how the hauling contract was awarded? Open bid, closed bid? Same old
    company as usual that dredges the airport sludge and channel along the Goleta bike path?
    Lots of money at stake; often makes for poor decision making.
    Seems like during these tough times the County /City is wasting money transferring such
    a long distance rather than a straight line to Mira Mar beach.

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