Some beaches in Southern California are closed for the Fourth of July weekend. Even though the pandemic has put a dark cloud on Californians’ beach plans, there is some good news.
Around 92% of all beaches in the state received good marks for water quality during the summer of 2019, according to an annual survey of more than 500 beaches by the group Heal the Bay.
In recent years, the environmental group issued a less glowing report card about California beaches, in part because heavy rain washed all sorts of contaminants — including wildfire debris — into the ocean.
Heal the Bay’s report card is in its 30th year and gives letter grades “A+” through “F” based on water samples. It tests for bacterial pollution from sources such as human and animal waste. The State Water Resources Control Board, which regulates water quality across the state, uses the organization’s weekly and yearly beach report cards to help determine water quality at coastal beaches.
The higher the grades are in the report card, the better the water quality, said Luke Ginger, lead author of the 2019-20 report and a water quality scientist with the group. In addition to the summer and winter water quality rankings, the group calculates the amount of rain each beach gets.
Ginger says 2020 has been a dry year for California so far, which helps prevent beach pollution.
“Less rain means fewer pollutants, including bacteria, were flushed into the ocean,” said Ginger, adding that coastal rainfall was 12% lower than average this year.
This played out in places like Orange County, which had 20 of the state’s cleanest beaches, according to this year’s report card. Statewide, 42 beaches made the group’s ‘Honor Roll’ in 2020.
The dirtiest beach on the list — Fitzgerald Marine Reserve — made what Ginger calls the “Bummer List” for the first time this year. He says managers need to do more investigating about where the pollution comes from.
“This beach is impacted by dry weather runoff, which flows into the ocean,” he said. “This beach is one of six San Mateo County beach bummers this year, which is an unprecedented number of beaches in one county.”
Four other “bummer” beaches are in Southern California, and have been problematic in the past, according to the group.
Ginger said the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 could be in the leaked sewage that has flowed into the ocean. But he says there are a lot of unanswered questions about how long the virus lives in seawater.
“COVID-19 has been detected by scientists in sewage, and sometimes sewage makes its way into the ocean,” he said. “We do not know how long the virus survives in sewage or in the ocean. And we do not know if someone can contract COVID-19 from ocean water.”
Part of the reason behind the cleaner beaches overall this year could come from a 2015 state policy that required counties to take samples from the point at which pollution enters a waterway instead of further out in the ocean.
“It used to be that you could go 100 yards away and take your sample after the polluted water had mixed with the ocean water,” said Dr. Shelley Luce, the group’s president and CEO.
Luce says it’s best to wait three days after it rains to swim in the ocean and to stay at least 100 yards from piers, storm drains and other areas where water doesn’t circulate well.
This year, the group also looked at beaches in Washington and Oregon. Next year, the report will include three beaches in Tijuana.
“Thirty years ago when we started this program, it was not uncommon for people to get sick from going into the ocean and getting exposed to pollution,” Luce said.
TOP 10 DIRTIEST BEACHES - F’s
Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, at San Vicente Creek Outlet - San Mateo County
Poche Beach, at Creek Outlet - Orange County
Pillar Point Harbor, at Capistrano Ave - San Mateo County
Foster City, Erckenbrack Park - San Mateo County
Topanga Beach, at Creek Outlet - Los Angeles County
Pillar Point Harbor Beach - San Mateo County
Linda Mar, at San Pedro Creek Outlet - San Mateo County
Mission Bay, Vacation Isle North Cove - San Diego County
San Clemente Pier - Orange County
Pillar Point Harbor, at Westpoint Ave. - San Mateo County
HONOR ROLL (Top 10)
Crescent City, at Battery Point Lighthouse - Del Norte County
Palos Verdes Estates, at Palos Verdes Cove - Los Angeles County
Rancho Palos Verdes, Long Point - Los Angeles County
Redondo State Beach, at Topaz Street - Los Angeles County
Asilomar State Beach, at Arena Ave. - Monterey County
Monterey State Beach - Monterey County
Spanish Bay (Moss Beach), at 17 mile drive - Monterey County
Bolsa Chica Reserve, at Flood Gates - Orange County
Dana Point Harbor Youth Dock - Orange County
Dana Point, at Camino Estrella - Orange County