California Today: Surf, Sun and Bacteria
Boys reacted to the smell near La Jolla Cove, which has made regular appearances on a ranking of the state’s most polluted beaches. Credit Sam Hodgson for The New York Times
Some of California’s most celebrated beaches are also the most likely to make you sick.
Heal the Bay, an environmental nonprofit, recently issued its annual report card for bacterial pollution at more than 400 beaches along the Pacific Coast.
Singled out as the least sanitary were destinations like La Jolla Cove, San Clemente Pier, Santa Monica Pier and Santa Cruz County’s Cowell and Capitola beaches.
Heal the Bay divvied out grades by season, using weekly data from April 2016 through March 2017.
During the dry days of summer last year, the vast majority of California beaches had excellent grades.
But winter was a different story. As record rainfall swept through the state’s cityscapes and pushed billions of gallons of runoff out to sea, water quality plummeted.
Nearly half of California beaches earned grades of C to F during the wet weather, 12 percent more than the five-year average.
Sarah Sikich, Heal the Bay’s chief scientist, said solutions lie in programs known to mitigate runoff pollution such as increased urban green cover and projects to capture, clean and reuse storm water.
“It’s indicative of a water mismanagement issue in California,” she said. “If we were doing a better job of rethinking that runoff we could turn it from a nuisance into a resource.”
Coastal geography also plays a role. Cove-like stretches such as those at Cowell and La Jolla are at a disadvantage because pollutants are less readily washed out to sea.
And beaches near creeks, rivers or storm drains absorb the brunt of urban runoff.
Humboldt County’s Clam Beach, which is fed by two creeks, was named California’s most polluted beach by Heal the Bay.
The problem there has vexed local environmentalists who cite a panoply of possible causes: bird poop, campground toilets, old septic systems, livestock and more.
“There’s no shortage of theories,” said Jennifer Kalt, the director of Humboldt Baykeeper, an environmental group.
Better understood is that bacterial pollution rises sharply immediately after a rain, then typically goes right back to normal. That’s why health experts recommend beachgoers wait three days to enter the ocean after a storm.
(You can also check Heal the Bay’s online tool for the latest beach conditions).
“I think oftentimes people think kids just get diarrhea or stomach aches for other reasons,” Ms. Kalt said. “But studies have shown that it’s often correlated with rainfall. If it rains one day and then the next day it’s sunny, people don’t really give it much thought.”
Heal the Bay, based in Santa Monica, also noted some bright spots with an “honor roll” of beaches that maintained exceptional water quality year-round.
Seven beaches in Laguna Beach, five in Carlsbad and four in both Encintas and Newport Beach made the cut.