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Why are some California beaches always considered 'dirty'

California’s famous coastline is a popular destination for residents and tourists alike, especially during the summer; however, not everyone enjoys the ocean water.

From multiple oil spills to floating debris, the Pacific Ocean off California’s coastline has endured much hardship. The consequences of these events have left some people hesitant to even step foot in the water at some Golden State beaches.

Experts with Heal the Bay recently published their annual Beach Report Card, which measures the cleanliness of California’s coastal waters.

For more than three decades, Heal the Bay has assigned A-F letter grades for more than 700 beaches across the U.S., with 500 of those locations being in California, according to the organization’s website.

Some locations with failing grades, like those in San Mateo and Los Angeles counties, have been named on the organization’s “Beach Bummer” list multiple times.

The “Beach Bummer” destination means that those locations are considered to be the worst in the state due to high levels of harmful bacteria in the ocean water.

These are the beaches that made the 2022 – 2023 “Beach Bummer” list

1-2. Playa Blanca, Tijuana Area

1-2. Santa Monica Pier, LA County

3. Linda Mar Beach, San Mateo County

4. Marlin Park, San Mateo County

5. Erckenbrack Park, San Mateo County

6. Tijuana River Mouth, San Diego County

7. Pillar Point Harbor, San Mateo County

8. Marina del Rey Mother’s Beach, LA County

9. Poche Beach, Orange County

10. Gull Park, San Mateo County

California’s “Beach Bummer” list expanded due to the state’s exceedingly wet winter season, which brought multiple rain-triggered sewage spills and flushed pollutants, including bacteria, through storm drains into the ocean, the report said.

“This year, record precipitation produced major impacts on water quality across coastal California,” Tracy Quinn, CEO of Heal the Bay, said in a statement.

“Now more than ever, we must prioritize multi-benefit projects to manage stormwater as both a water quality and supply solution, all while ensuring that the public is kept informed of risks to public health.”

The increase in rainwater virtually wiped out Southern California’s beaches from the honor roll list, which recognizes the beaches that have the best water quality. Beaches in the southern region of the state typically dominate the honor roll list since Northern and Central California counties don’t monitor water quality year-round, according to the report.

However, some beaches like Santa Monica Pier in Los Angeles County and Linda Mar Beach in San Mateo County, have been recognized for their poor water long before the recent wet winter season.

The two beaches ranked within the top three on the “Beach Bummer” list, partially due to the significant water quality challenges that contribute to the areas’ high concentrations of harmful bacteria.

“In the city of Santa Monica, they suspect that the high bird fecal matter is a major contributing factor to the high bacteria levels in the area,” Alison Xunyi Wu, water quality data specialist at Heal the Bay, told KTLA.

Wu said that Heal the Bay experts collect water samples from Santa Monica Pier near the birds’ home and that could be the reason behind the location’s poor rating.

For Linda Mar Beach in San Mateo County and other beach locations named on the “Beach Bummer” list, Wu blames their poor rating primarily on something else.

“So the reason why these beaches are usually dirty is mainly because of their limited water circulation, which leads to prolonged pollution near the shore,” Wu said.

“This means the circulation is not enough to flush away all pollution when it happens. So when we have a fecal pollution happening on these beaches, the water quality will stay bad for a long time.”

However, it’s not all bad news for California beachgoers; about 95% of beaches in the Golden State received an “A” or “B” grade in prior Heal the Bay reports, according to Wu.

For example, two beaches in California made the organization’s 2022-2023 Honor Roll, Bean Hollow State Beach in San Mateo County and Point Loma in San Diego County.

For those who may be visiting the “Beach Bummer” locations during the summer, Wu says that visitors can still enjoy their time by the sea but should avoid getting into the ocean.

“Polluted waters pose a significant health risk to millions of people in California. People who come in contact with water with a C grade or lower are at a greater risk of contracting illnesses such as stomach flu, ear infections, upper respiratory infections, and rashes,” according to the organization’s website.

Californians can also download the official Heal the Bay app to get updates on water quality for local beaches. The app is available for both IOS and Android devices.

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