This season's first sheeting rains started falling in Morro Bay at about 3:30 a.m. on Oct. 13.
For most folks, the rain's patter and accompanying lightning storm likely only triggered a sleepy desire to pull the blankets up tighter.
Yet for an intrepid group of volunteers, the downpour signaled time to dress and caffeinate on the run, to grab long-prepared packets of sampling gear, and to speed to the culverts and gullies that, for better or worse, feed the estuary.
The environmental first-responders were among the volunteer monitors for the Morro Bay National Estuary Program's "First Flush" testing, an annual report that catalogs the levels of gunk and oil and feces and pollutants washed from roofs, parking lots, and storm drains into the bay with the first rains of the season.
Using samples taken within the first hour of those sheeting rains, the team and others who would later measure runoff in Los Osos discovered evidence that mostly underscores the disturbing narrative that spells trouble for the health of the bay.
Among the findings from the group's recently compiled report:
Levels of the toxic metals zinc, copper, and nickel that the group deems concerning were found throughout the testing area. The metals from car tires, disintegrating brake pads, and gasoline combustion have been shown to be toxic to varieties of mussels, oysters, sea urchins, and sand dollars. The results were consistently higher than those found in similar tests conducted a year prior.
At one Los Osos site, nitrogen levels exceeded recommended "attention levels." A year ago, no sites exceeded the level. Because of its sewer fight, Los Osos is a community that's long focused on nitrogen, which can spur algae blooms in the water, but the report's authors stress that the "First Flush" findings, because they focus on runoff rather than groundwater, have no impact on that debate.
At one site in Baywood Park, E. coli, the illness-causing bacteria that comes only from the feces of warm-blooded animals, was found at levels exponentially higher than what the Environmental Protection Agency recommends as safe for recreational contact.
In fact, the levels of E. coli pouring out of the culvert at 2nd Street and Baywood Pier were 4,452 times higher than what the government would consider safe to swim in.
There aren't regulatory standards for runoff water. People, in other words, aren't meant to swim in water from culverts. The standards apply to the waters themselves, not the drainage pipes that feed them.
"I'm not really shocked and appalled by anything anymore," said Annie Gillespie, volunteer monitoring program coordinator for the estuary program.
She noted that she expects to find high pollutant levels in the first runoff of the season, but, she said, "That one does really stand out."
The group didn't test the sample to find out if the E. coli was from human sources or not. Such tests are time-consuming and complex, Gillespie said, and since the runoff patterns in Los Osos and Baywood Park aren't well-established, it would be difficult to track the bacteria to its source.
She said the findings could be explained by other means: If the tested water had washed through an informal dog park, she said, that might provide an explanation for the E. coli levels.
Regardless, the results were sent to the California Regional Water Quality Control Board and other regulatory agencies for any possible action.
Bill Hoffman, an environmental scientist with the board, said it's too soon to say what will come as a result of the 2006 report, but the information from such reports can help the board work with local cities, counties, and community services districts to either stop the sources of the pollution or treat the waters before they reach the bay.
"I know their bacteria levels were really high," Hoffman said.
At the least, he said, the information might serve to prompt people to clean up after their pets near the bay.
"It's actually really important data," he said. "It's hard to get. It's hard to collect, and you can see there's significant pollution in that, especially the first flush stuff."