The 2017-18 Heal the Bay Beach Report Card awarded good to great grades to local beaches, thanks in large part to below average rainfall over the winter.
Every week, the Santa Monica-based non-profit organization tests for bacteria levels at creek and storm drain outflows at more than 400 beaches statewide, and assigns an A-to-F water quality grade. Heal the Bay’s annual beach report card arrives, like school report cards, at the start of summer, to draw attention to the issue of water quality, but the test results are also available weekly, to help beachgoers stay safe.
“Less rain means less bacteria-laden urban runoff carried to the sea via the storm drain system,” a press release for this year’s beach report states. “Accordingly, bacterial pollution at our local beaches dipped dramatically in 2017-18.”
Dry weather contributed to nearly 95 percent of the beaches monitored in Southern California earning summer “A” grades, up five percent over the five-year average.
Northern California, which received more rain, did not fare as well as usual this year, but a record 37 beaches in California made the Heal the Bay Honor Roll, receiving a perfect A-plus score every week throughout the year. Four of the honor beaches were in Malibu. Topanga State Beach squeaked by with a passing grade on the Heal the Bay annual report card, but adjacent Las Tunas Beach was one of four local beaches on this year’s Honor Role, together with Escondido Beach, Dan Blocker (Corral), and El Matador.
The nearest “Beach Bummer” continues to be the Santa Monica Pier, number 7 on the list this year.
Poche Beach in Orange County tops the beach bummer list, an honor most beach communities would rather not receive.
The organization cautions that this year’s good news is tempered concerns over the long-term prognosis for water quality. In the past, droughts followed by heavy winter rains can dramatically impact water quality, as the “first flush” washes a toxic slurry of bacteria-laden runoff into the ocean. Trash, pet waste and effluent, as well as toxins like brake dust, automotive fluids, fertilizers and pesticide residue all end up on local beaches.
“Runoff poses significant health risks to the tens of thousands of year-round ocean users in Southern California, who can contract a respiratory or gastrointestinal illness from one morning swim or surf session in polluted waters,” the press release states. “Gastrointestinal illnesses caused by recreating in L.A. and Orange County ocean waters lead to at least $20 million in economic losses each year, according to UCLA researchers.”
Heal the Bay is supporting an effort to place a public funding measure on the November ballot in L.A. County to build infrastructure for increased stormwater capture, that would help create a local water supply and reduce the amount of polluted runoff that reaches the ocean, but it may be an uphill battle to convince tax-weary Angelenos that the project warrants yet another tax hike. It’s easy to forget just how bad things were before the passage of the Coastal Act and the statewide effort to clean up the beach.
In 1971, Mark Reynolds, the sports editor of Santa Monica College’s student newspaper The Corsair, detoured from sports reporting to focus on the plight of California’s coastline during the final push to get the Coastal Act on the ballot. He points to massive development plans for the local area, including oil drilling in Santa Monica Bay, a proposed six-lane freeway from Malibu Canyon to Point Mugu, and a yacht harbor modeled on Marina del Rey in place of one of Malibu’s best surf breaks. Reynolds also raised concerns about statewide water quality issues: sewage spills that routinely closed miles of coastline, lead from gasoline at a time when California was just beginning to transition to unleaded fuel, and mercury contamination that killed hundreds of sea lions in the early 1970s.
Reynolds made a plea for his readers to write to California Governor Ronald Reagan, and U.S. President Richard Nixon, “and complain like mad.” People did. Things changed. The Environmental Protection Agency was created in 1970. The California Coastal Act was passed in in 1972, so was the national Clean Water Act. The Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health (BEACH) Act followed two decades later.
However, the current U.S. President’s Fiscal Year 2019 budget proposes eliminating funding for BEACH Act grant program, leaving states to fund their own water quality monitoring at a lower level, potentially putting beachgoers and marine life at risk. Ocean advocates say now would be a good time to continue the tradition of complaining like mad.
Heal the Bay recommends that beachgoers always avoid swimming near storm drains, creeks and piers, or in shallow, enclosed beaches, which usually suffer from poor circulation. The organization’s “Stream Team” also monitors water quality at a number of local swimming holes.
To learn more about water quality monitoring, or to check the weekly water quality grades at local beaches, Visit Heal the Bay’s newly redesigned website at beachreportcard.org.