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Heal the Bay says LA surf is cleaner… thanks to the drought

Pravin Patel, a lab technician in the Environmental Monitoring Division for Los Angeles County, takes samples of the beach water in Marina del Rey on Monday, Aug. 5.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Pravin Patel, a lab technician in the Environmental Monitoring Division for Los Angeles County, takes samples of the beach water in Marina del Rey.

Back-to-back dry winters have come with a silver lining: cleaner water at local beaches. The annual Beach Report Card out from environmental group Heal the Bay has found better grades for Southern California's favorite sandy spots.

The central ingredient in a recipe for clean beaches is rain, or more specifically, its absence, according to Heal the Bay staff scientist Kirsten James. Winter downpours carry bacteria, viruses, chemicals and other gunk into storm drains and out to coastal waters. Without that major cause of pollution, James says, “we saw in L.A. a 13-percentage-point increase over the five year average” for good grades at Los Angeles County beaches. “Which is a marked improvement.”

When it did rain, nearly 40 percent of Southern California beaches got grades of D or F from the group. That's why both county health officials and Heal the Bay recommend staying out of the ocean when it storms.

Heal the Bay compiles and assigns grades according to its own reading of water quality tests conducted by public agencies.

The group also creates what it calls a “Beach Bummers” list of the 10 dirtiest coastal areas in the state. Three of them are in Los Angeles County.

While the oceanside section of Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro won "honor roll" grades from Heal the Bay, the side facing Los Angeles Harbor has now made the Beach Bummer list five years running. This year it’s joined by Mother’s Beach in Marina Del Rey and repeat offender Santa Monica Pier.

“Although it is positive that we’re seeing higher grades overall, we still see beaches that have poor grades even in this dry weather,” James said. 

The report reveals that two sites with chronic pollution problems have made progress. Upgrades to Catalina’s corroded sewer system have improved test results at Avalon Beach.

And Orange County’s Poche Beach went from an F to a B in Heal the Bay’s report.

Poche’s war against pollution is long. Orange County built a $3 million dollar filtration system to treat urban runoff and redirected discharge away from a pond next to the beach where the runoff had stagnated. For the last several years sanitation officials have also been contending with seagulls, who love to bathe in Poche pond and love to leave droppings.

O.C. beach managers used ultrasonic noise and have started working with a master falconer. A program that brings falcons to a nearby landfill is moving to the beach this summer.

“The falcons are there to just deter the general bird population from continuing to roost, so hopefully that will deter the birds from being in the area, and hopefully that will limit the amount of bacteria that’s getting into the water,” James said.

James says to enjoy beach quality this summer. Come winter there could be more rain and the pollution it brings with early predictions for an El Niño pattern in the Pacific later this year. As a result, coastal managers will have to work harder to protect beaches against urban runoff.

2014 Beach Report Card