The strangest thing I’ve ever seen in the ocean was a couch. It floated by while I was surfing a river mouth after some heavy rain. Nobody was snoozing on it, at least, but it was quite a bizarre sight nonetheless. If a couch can reach the lineup, what else is washing down from the hills?
There’s plenty of polluted runoff dumping into the ocean during a wet winter. According to those who seem to know what they’re talking about, it’s sensible to avoid the water for 72-hours after a rainstorm. The problem is, following that program, storms stacked up over the Pacific could leave you dry for weeks while the waves are pumping. But entering polluted water could possibly melt your skin off or otherwise ruin your day.
Sometimes the waves are just too epic to follow the 72-hour program. I’ve implemented the zero-hour program on occasion. Judging by the number of people in the lineup, the zero-hour program is quite popular. It’s probably unwise, and I conjure up bogus justifications for a session (well, the water color is sort of normal/I’ll wear earplugs and seal my lips when duck-diving/that foul smell is natural, etc.). Those justifications don’t pass scientific muster, but they offer some comfort while watching a storm drain discharge cruddy water into the lineup.
It’s a symptom of a larger problem of ocean health affecting marine life, people who work and play in the ocean, and society at large. Humans have used the ocean as a dumping ground for millennia. In addition to all the crap dumped directly in the water, land use in the watershed, even well inland, impacts ocean health. Wetlands, in particular, are vital to clean water.
Wetlands come in many forms—from massive tidal estuaries and freshwater marshes to riverine wetlands, swamps, springs, wet meadows, and tiny vernal pools—and occur wherever water floods or saturates the soil long enough to support wetland vegetation. In addition to plant and wildlife habitat, groundwater recharge, carbon storage, and many other ecological functions, wetlands act as a sponge in the watershed, storing and filtering runoff so sediment and pollutants that might flow to the ocean get absorbed by soil and vegetation (wetlands could even trap a couch, though plants might have a hard time absorbing it into their root system).
Wetlands are under major stress from human activities. Most historical wetlands in California and elsewhere have been filled, drained, or otherwise altered. When that happens, the watershed loses its filter and water quality suffers. Once considered irritating, odoriferous wastelands in need of elimination (or “reclamation” in typically Orwellian parlance), wetlands are now recognized for the vital ecological services they provide. Wetland loss and degradation is still ongoing, but there’s been major progress in protecting remaining wetlands, restoring degraded wetlands, and creating new wetlands as mitigation for impacts.
The more wetlands functioning in the watershed, the less chance your skin will melt off when you surf after a rainstorm. And, if you’re lucky, you’ll never have to see a couch float by in the lineup.