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Orange County beaches score high on summer water quality

Crowds of pandemic-driven beachgoers found California shores to have good water quality last summer, with Orange County’s coast grading out as even cleaner than the state average, according to the new Heal the Bay Beach Report Card.

Orange County was also well represented on the non-profit’s Honor Roll, topping the list with 10 of the of 35 California beaches earning perfect year-round water quality marks for the period covering April 2020 through March 2021.

Overall, the number of beaches statewide that earned an “A” or “B” in the crucial summer months statewide — 93% — and in the county — 96% — was on par with recent years.

“With the closures, stress and uncertainty of the pandemic, it is no surprise that people sought out our local waters in 2020,” said Shelley Luce, president and CEO of the Santa Monica-based Heal the Bay. “While we’re thrilled about the excellent water quality grades across California, our marine ecosystems are still threatened by climate change and other pollution sources.”

That pollution is starkly apparent following the rains that arrive in non-summer months, when just 57% of statewide beaches and 42% of Orange County beaches received good or excellent marks. While the coast received far less rain than usual during the period surveyed, the wet-weather water quality results were worse than the 5-year wet weather averages for both the state and Orange County.

Rains wash toxins, fertilizer, bacteria from animal poop and other pollutants from streets and landscapes into the ocean by way of rivers, streams and storm drains. As a result, beachgoers face an increased risk of contracting ear, eye and respiratory infections, as well as skin rashes and gastrointestinal illness. Health officials typically urge bathers and surfers to stay out of the ocean for 72 hours after winter storms.

The infrequent rains last season may have meant there were more contaminants washed into the ocean when the showers did arrive because pollution had more time gather, according to Luke Ginger, the report card’s lead author. He also noted there was less data collected by local monitoring agencies last season, resulting in readings gathered during the first rains being “a greater piece of the wet weather grade pie.”

The lack of rain also meant there were more dry winter months, when there was good or excellent quality at 92% of beaches statewide and 96% of beaches in the county.

Beach Bummers

Two of Orange County’s worst beaches for water quality avoided Heal the Bay’s latest list of Beach Bummers, the group’s annual ranking of the state’s 10 worst beaches for summer water quality. San Clemente Pier made the list the past two years and Dana Point’s Poche Beach at the Prima Deshecha Cañada storm drain, near the San Clemente city line, made the list in five of the past 10 years.

San Clemente installed bird-deterrent netting under sections of the pier in 2018 and 2020, and the city’s Jennifer Savage said that change has paid off in improved improved water quality. The city also has an ongoing project to identify the source of human fecal bacteria detected in the water.

“The city’s really proud of the work we’ve done to this point and we’re committed to be better moving forward,” Savage said. “This is a community priority.”

Water at the pier scored a “C” for last summer in the new report, an improvement but still an indication that there could be a risk to bathers and surfers.

Ginger said it’s too early to tell how much water quality has improved.

“We need to wait for a few more seasons to observe an overall trend,” he said, adding that Heal the Bay would like to see San Clemente take additional measures. “The pier has a storm drain underneath, so we advocate for capturing, treating and reusing the storm drain flows. That will prevent pollution from entering the ocean in the first place, and it acts as a water source.”

Meanwhile, Poche Beach is plagued by its own storm drain carrying pollution into the ocean, an ongoing issue. It scored a “D” for summer months in the latest report.

“We urge Orange County and Dana Point to do more to improve water quality there,” Ginger said. “We recommend a whole-watershed approach” that would reduce contaminants entering the storm drain.

Los Angeles had one Beach Bummer this year, Mother’s Beach in Marina del Rey. Water quality continues to be an issue there because the beach is enclosed and there’s a lack of water circulation, according to the report.

Honor Roll

After Orange County, Los Angeles County had the most Honor Roll beaches with seven, with Malibu hosting six of those.

Here are Orange County beaches that received perfect scores year round, with seven of the ten in Newport Beach:

• Promontory Point, Newport Beach

• Orange Street, Newport Beach

• 52nd / 53rd Street, Newport Beach

• Balboa Beach Pier, Newport Beach

• The Wedge, Newport Beach

• Crystal Cove, Newport Beach (two test locations)

• 1000 Steps Beach, Laguna Beach

• North Aliso County Beach, Laguna Beach

• Treasure Island Beach, Laguna Beach

Source: Orange County Register

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