Beach Water Quality in Southern California

It just so happens that three of the top ten worst beaches in California are two that I frequented in college and the third is an island 22 miles off the coast. The list is rounded out by LA County taking up half the list and San Diego, Orange, and San Francisco Counties only having one “dirty-ass beach”.

I found this report from Heal the Bay thanks to a tip from the LATimes.

These worst of the worst beaches are so named due to risk of “potential illness (to) include stomach flu, ear infection, respiratory infection, and major skin rash”. Which can result after only a one-time exposure on a single day. Going in the water more than once can “significantly increase” your chances.

The good news is that 90% of the beaches in California came in with a A or B grade. Only 13 beaches completely failed with an F. It seems that the majority of the dirty beaches problems arise only during wet weather. During dry conditions the grades are better with 92% scoring and A/B.

The report says that stormwater runoff is the major culprit. Which just so happens to be the place where kids like to play. I agree with the kids it is the ‘funnest’ place on the beach, if the waves are not hitting.

The worst place for this runoff turns out be Avalon Harbor which is 22 miles out in the ocean on Catalina Island. This seems counter-intuitive but the facts don’t lie, Avalon has been the worst beach in the state 9 out of the past 11 years.

Five others on the list from LA County including two of my old haunts the Santa Monica Pier and where Sunset Blvd hits PCH. Since the county is sorely in need of improvement it is good news to hear that the California budget foibles are minimally affecting LA’s programs.

A few quick other details about LA County. There were five sewage spills into county beaches, with the largest being larger than 100,000 gallons (into Lunada Bay). The county is the only county in the state to measure water quality at point zero, or pipe outlet, which allows for a more accurate picture of pollution. Most counties grab their data lower down the line after the pollution has been diluted.

Orange County, on the surface, appears to be doing well with 96% of its beaches making the grade (A/B). Only one beach, Poche Beach, getting a failing grade. However, during the few wet weather periods when measurements were taken only 42% of the beaches had A/B grades. The old advice is definitely still holding out “never go in the water after a rain”.

Also of note is Dana Point’s Baby Beach, a location that has been given a consistent failing grade in the past, will no longer be monitored.

As the county faces the same budget troubles as LA County they are making positive steps to improve. Which include unifying the county agencies responsible for monitoring the water quality, eliminating redundant measurements, and dropping consistently clean locations to focus on the dirtier spots.

Steps like these are needed to ensure that what’s happening in San Diego doesn’t spread to the rest of the state. San Diego County has seventeen sewage spills, a top worst beach, and has to continually deal with the pollution coming out of Tiajuana (the Tiajuana Slough).

Only time will tell how our beaches fare during the budget crisis, but the writing is clear. Counties are on their own. I guess so are beach goers…

Read the full report (84 pg PDF).

*all photos from the Heal the Bay full report*