Starting Tuesday, TV monitors will alert beachgoers how clean the surf, and more quickly than other methods.
Flat-screen monitors placed at Newport Beach Dunes, Huntington State Beach, Doheny State Beach, will all begin receiving real-time water quality reports transmitted from the county health department. There are also monitors at Newport Pier and Big Corona State Beach.
Part of an eight-week pilot program, the new water-testing methods are from a collaboration among the county's health care agency, the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project (SCCWRP) and other government agencies to get the most timely information to beachgoers, SCCWRP President Steve Weisberg said.
Current methods can take up to two days from the time when water samples are taken and when lifeguards can post warning signs on the beach, Weisberg said.
This poses a problem for beachgoers who many not know what to make of posted warnings — the water may have already cleared, but it also could have worsened.
"People say 'we're swimming in yesterday's mess,'" Newport Beach City Manager David Kiff said.
With rapid testing, information can be gathered from water samples and sent out to the public in two or three hours, said Amanda Griesbach, a microbiologist with Santa Monica-based Heal the Bay, one of the several organizations involved with the pilot program.
"We'll be able to let the public know the same day whether this is the best day to go in the water or not," Griesbach said.
The rapid testing will be done at nine locations at the five beaches every morning, and information from that will be analyzed and released to the public before noon, Weisberg said.
The project is estimated to cost $300,000, most of which was spent on advanced lab equipment and supplies, through funds provided to the county from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Weisberg said.
The television monitors were provided by the nonprofit foundation Miocean.
A task force created by the Costa Mesa-based SCCWRP will meet in September to review the pilot program's results and decide whether to continue with it.
During the pilot phase, regular testing methods will still be used and the results of the two methods will be compared to study the accuracy of the rapid testing method versus the more traditional one, Kiff said.
According to the 2010 Heal the Bay Beach Report Card, Newport received "A" grades overall for its beaches in dry weather.
However, as of Friday the weekly report listed a "C" grade to a stretch of beach located off Bayside Drive near the Harbor Patrol Station in Newport.
Water quality can change overnight, and beach ratings can vary by as little as 100 yards, Griesbach said.
This variance is typically caused by locations with urban runoff flowing into the ocean, she explained, usually by a pipe or creek.
The hope of those involved is that the new testing method will increase public confidence in posted warnings, which are often ignored in prime swimming conditions.
"After a while, the message just becomes noise in the background," said Rick Wilson, coastal management coordinator for the Surfrider Foundation, which is not part of the pilot program. "The problem is getting people to pay attention again."
Little Corona Beach was closed Friday after broken sewer line spewed thousands of gallons of untreated sewage into the ocean. The beach will remain closed through the holiday weekend.