Rainfall effects on beach water quality in southern California are large enough that county health departments typically issue warnings for the public to avoid recreational water contact for 3 days following a storm. To enhance the scientific foundation for these preemptive public health warnings, we examined the relationship between rainfall and beach indicator bacteria concentrations using 5 years of fecal coliform data taken daily at 20 sites in southern California. There was a countrywide increase in ocean bacterial concentrations associated with almost all storms larger than 6 mm and with every storm larger than 25 mm. Only for storms less than 2.5 mm was there no observable rainfall effect. Bacterial concentrations remained elevated for 5 days following a storm, although they generally returned to levels below state water quality standards within 3 days. The length of the antecedent dry period had a minimal effect on this relationship, probably reflecting a quickly developed equilibrium between the decay of older fecal material and the introduction of new fecal material to the landscape.

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