New ‘report card’ grades the dirtiest beaches in California

After a disastrous year of oil spills and sewer system failures, here’s good news for the California coast: Most beaches across the state are still much cleaner than they have been in decades.

In its annual “report sheet,” Heal the Bay rated more than 700 beaches and found that 94% of California’s beaches had clean water between April and October 2021, and that 51 beaches had perfect year-round scores – a good sign for a coast , which was once riddled with so much garbage and bacteria that people often felt nauseous while swimming.

But the report still found worrying pockets of pollution – some surprising and others persistent – especially in the winter months.

Another year of extreme drought has also complicated things: Beaches tend to be less polluted in drier years (imagine all the trash, pesticides and microplastics washed into the sea when it rains), but that trend has become less clear. Scientists are beginning to study how record wildfires and changing storm patterns could also affect coastal water quality.

Without further ado, here are the dirtiest beaches in California:

1. Erckenbrack Park (Foster Town, San Mateo County)

2. Marlin Park (Foster Town, San Mateo County)

3. Santa Monica Pier (Santa Monica, Los Angeles County)

4. Mother’s Beach (Marina del Rey, Los Angeles County)

5. Moonstone County Park (Humboldt County)

6. Newport Bay, Vaughn’s Start (Orange County)

7. Lakeshore Park (San Mateo County)

8. Tijuana Slough, north of the mouth of the Tijuana River (San Diego County)

This annual report, now in its 32nd year, is based on routine water quality testing conducted by local health authorities, sanitation departments, and state and tribal agencies. Beach samples are analyzed for three faecal indicator bacteria showing pollution from multiple sources including human and animal waste.

Because each agency formats their raw data in different (and sometimes confusing) ways, Heal the Bay — a nonprofit environmental organization based in Santa Monica — began compiling and translating the information into simple A-Plus through F-classes for the public. Swimming at a beach rated C or lower greatly increases the risk of skin rashes, ear and upper respiratory tract infections, and other illnesses like the stomach flu.

The State Water Resources Control Board endorses this report, which helps scientists and policymakers identify trends and specific beaches that need closer attention.

The Santa Monica Pier, for example, came as a surprise this year. This popular tourist attraction consistently had the lowest ratings in the state due to a major storm drain under the pier. But that changed after 2018, when the city built a 1.6-million-gallon tank under the parking lot to collect and recycle dirty runoff before it was washed into the ocean.

City officials are still trying to figure out what’s causing this new spike in pollution. Birds roosting and pooping under the pier are likely culprits. (Birds are also likely behind the high levels of bacteria recorded this year at Vaughn’s Launch in Newport Bay, which is on an ecological reserve.)

Beaches with poor circulation are also still an issue. For the third year in a row, a significant number of beaches in San Mateo County topped the list of California’s dirtiest beaches. Many of these swimming areas – similar to Mother’s Beach in Marina del Rey – are bordered by urbanized canals and harbors.

Image of families swimming and playing at Mother's Beach in Marina del Rey

While popular with families with young children, Mother’s Beach in Marina del Rey is one of the most polluted beaches in California due to poor water circulation.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Though these beaches are sheltered from big waves — making them popular with families with young children — pollution and bacteria easily build up with so little traffic.

“The physical nature of these beaches is a big issue — the surrounding development extends to the water’s edge,” said Luke Ginger, a water quality scientist at Heal the Bay. “So there’s a lot of concrete, a lot of impervious surfaces. The rainwater flows straight from the street into the water.”

The inadequate infrastructure also proved to be a major problem last year. Last summer, 17 million gallons of sewage spilled into the waters off Dockweiler and El Segundo Beaches after equipment at Los Angeles’ largest wastewater treatment plant failed. An estimated 25,000 gallons of oil spilled off the coast of Huntington Beach in October after an aging pipeline ruptured.

Near the border with Mexico, nearly a billion gallons of sewage spilled into the Pacific after a derelict pipe called the “International Collector” ruptured in January. Communities near the mouth of the Tijuana River — which originates in Mexico but empties into the ocean in California — have been chronically plagued by these failures to contain raw sewage flows.

“Just one big mistake can undo a lot of work and cause a lot of problems,” said Ginger, pointing to decades of effort to clean up California’s beaches. “With infrastructure aging and deteriorating, we are concerned that such events will become more common.”

Aside from massive spills, manhole runoff remains the largest source of pollution on California’s beaches. Unlike sewage, which is typically filtered by sewage treatment plants before being released, most dirty water washes straight into the ocean through a network of gullies and concreted rivers.

A good rule of thumb is to stay at least 100 meters from gullies and piers – and be careful when swimming on closed beaches. And always, always wait at least 72 hours after it rains before going into the sea.

Ginger and his team have also improved their daily reports, called NowCast, at 25 local beaches to help people stay better informed. And for the second time this year, three popular Tijuana beaches were on the report card that are regularly affected by raw sewage: El Faro, El Vigia and Playa Blanca, which received the lowest score of all beaches evaluated this year.

Inspired by the way this annual beach report has led to better standards nationwide, a growing movement of people is now turning their attention up the watershed – to the many rivers and creeks that flow into the ocean and provide recreation for communities in the serve inland.

Image of the Los Angeles River flowing under an overpass.

The Los Angeles River flows through a largely urban landscape, carrying polluted runoff to the ocean.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

The same urban runoff that pollutes the ocean often begins in these seemingly fresh rivers. But unlike today’s beach surveillance, California has no statewide oversight or standardization for freshwater pollution surveillance. Because of this data gap, people who swim in rivers do not receive the same public health information as beachgoers.

Now in its fourth year, Heal the Bay’s “River Report” uses a similar rating framework for 35 locations along the Malibu Creek, Los Angeles River and San Gabriel River in Los Angeles County.

Here are popular riverside spots in the Los Angeles area that pose the highest risk of disease:

1. Los Angeles River at Riverfront Park (Maywood)

2. Los Angeles River below the confluence of the Rio Hondo (South Gate)

3. Los Angeles River in Hollydale Park (South Gate)

4. Compton Creek

5. Los Angeles River below Compton Creek Confluence (Long Beach)

6. Tujunga Wash at Hansen Dam (Pacoima)

7. Los Angeles River at Willow Street (Long Beach)

8. Los Angeles River in Rattlesnake Park (Elysian Valley)

9. Las Virgenes Creek (Malibu Creek State Park)

10. Bull Creek (San Fernando Valley)

It was alarming to discover just how bad the pollution was in the lower LA River, the report noted, particularly in areas that are not designated for recreation but are nonetheless used for swimming and fishing. Homeless communities have also relied on this part of the river for washing and other purposes.

The concentration of bacteria along this stretch of river was more than 10 times higher than what the US Environmental Protection Agency believes is safe.

Tracy Quinn, who became the new president of Heal the Bay in May, said expanding flow credentials is a big priority. Gov. Gavin Newsom signed new legislation last October that would require state officials to identify all of California’s lakes, rivers and streams to monitor for public health risks.

Quinn, who formerly oversaw California’s city water policy at the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council, also advocates for more projects that can absorb and clean up city runoff while also serving as parks and providing much-needed green space for inland communities. Our built environment and our health are ultimately inextricably linked.

“We’ve replaced natural landscapes with sealed roads and structures, and that has resulted in high levels of pollution in our rivers and in our ocean,” she said. “When we talk about the quality of coastal waters, we have to see it as a turning point. We need to tackle this from the top to the sea.” New ‘report card’ grades the dirtiest beaches in California

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