Bacteria Contaminate Some Beaches, Leave Others Unscathed

Melissa Lee | Staff Photographer

Melissa Lee | Staff Photographer
Dry summers feature predictable bacteria hot spots such as river outlets and enclosed beaches.

Summer is the dry season for water contamination on the beach, and short of severe weather, is an easy season to predict where and when water contamination will occur Aside from sewage spills, in which natural debris clog poorly maintained sewage pipes causing an overflow, bacterial contamination is rare and isolated to water flowing from river outlets into the beach.
While Southern California is nationally renowned for its beaches, they vary drastically in quality according to Rick Wilson, the Coastal Management Coordinator for the Surfrider Foundation.
“Most of the beaches are okay, but there are a few notable areas that are chronically high in bacteria,” said Wilson.
The Surfrider Foundation is a non-profit, grassroots organization dedicated to protecting the world’s beaches. It has over 50,000 members worldwide, with chapters in states on both coasts of the United States and ranging as far as Brazil, Australia and Japan. Wilson is one of barely 20 full-time employees of the foundation whose duties include working to monitor bacterial content in the local beaches with various state and volunteer watchdog groups. Some of these organizations, such as Heal the Bay, are non-profit groups working locally to help educate the public about water safety. Other organizations, such as the government-funded Ocean Water Protection Program, record safety conditions and up-to-date official statements regarding beach warnings and closings.
According to the Annual Ocean and Bay Water Quality Report for 2007, the total number of ocean and bay water closures each year has been on the decline since 2001. The Water Quality Report is a service from the County of Orange Health Care Agency (HCA) whose Ocean Water Protection Program is responsible for testing the over 42 miles of beaches and 70 miles of harbor and bay area in Orange County. These tests measure the amount of bacteria that may contaminate the water or cause illness. The HCA is required to close a beach if there is a known release of sewage into ocean or bay waters adjacent to a public beach and continue collecting water samples until they meet HCA standards for a clean beach.
Unfortunately, the HCA’s system is very black and white: either a beach is clean and open or contaminated and closed. This summer, several interest groups, including the federal branch of the EPA and scientists from UC Berkeley, will collaborate with the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project in an epidemiological study of southern California beaches. The groups will survey local beaches and attempt to ascertain what dangers certain bacteria pose to swimmers. Currently, the OWPP searches for indicator bacteria, such as total coliform, fecal coliform and enterrococcus, the last of which can be found in human and animal feces and can lead to infections in the urinary tract and open wounds. Any report of these bacteria signal possible pollution from sewage, animal wastes or urban runoff.
According to Heal the Bay’s ocean interface, available at, Dana Point at Doheny Beach south of San Juan Creek and Dana Point at San Juan Creek received F and D grades, respectively, on Heal the Bay’s latest online report. The grades are based on water sampling over a four-week period and follow a typical percentage grading scale declining ten percent from an A at 90 percent to an F below 59 percent; the grades reflect Heal the Bay’s sampling of the bacteria in coastal waters. These areas are located around the mouth of the San Juan Creek and feature water flow somewhat restricted by natural barriers, which may explain the poor grades.
“Enclosed Beaches like Newport Bay, Newport Dunes and Baby Beach near Dana Point don’t have as much circulation as open beaches. Everything kind of stagnates,” Wilson said.
Wilson went on to cite the trend of poorer water quality in harbors and closed beaches.’s report indicated Baby Beach-Buoy Line has a C grade.
Fortunately, this intense attention has made southern California beaches clean compared to its counterparts in other parts of the country according to Wilson.
“Orange County does more monitoring than any place I’m aware of in the country,” Wilson said.
He added that Orange County has, as far as he knows, one of the world’s largest water reclamation projects.
“The water treatment plants clean 240 million gallons a day,” said Wilson, “and 100 million gallons are transported to another facility for further cleaning and are transformed into 70 million gallons of drinking water.”
Although creek and river runoff sites at the beach are repeat offenders for high bacterial content that may be harmful to swimmers, the remaining beaches in the Orange County and Newport areas have reportedly scored well. In the case of a storm, however, or any increase in water flow from rivers or urban runoff, beach patrons are encouraged to stay away from beaches for 72 hours after the event to allow dispersion of the potentially contaminated water.