Capitola Beach routinely earned Fs for water quality from nonprofit Heal the Bay over the past year.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

Capitola Beach bummer: After popular spot gets unhealthy F, is it safe to swim there?

With Capitola Beach ranking third-worst in the state in terms of water quality ahead of the Fourth of July holiday weekend, here’s what you need to know about swimming at a spot long popular with visitors from Santa Cruz County and beyond.

Santa Cruz County beaches have frequently been highlighted by a nonprofit that grades California’s worst beaches, and Capitola Beach is this year’s local entry on a list nobody wants to be on ahead of the upcoming long holiday weekend.

Heal the Bay released its annual beach report card this week, a compilation and analysis of water quality at California beaches throughout the year. As part of the report, the 10 beaches with the worst water quality are highlighted on the “Beach Bummer List.” This year, Capitola ranked third-worst in the state.

Capitola Beach has appeared on the Beach Bummer list periodically over the years, primarily because of the discharge from Soquel Creek. This year, Capitola routinely earned F grades in water quality from Heal the Bay’s scoring system.

An F score means that the water quality is well below what is considered safe. Yet Capitola continues to be one of Santa Cruz’s most popular beaches for tourists and locals alike. So is it safe to swim and surf there? We interviewed two experts on water quality and human health to find out.

The risks

Anne Leonard, an environmental epidemiologist and microbiologist at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, has spent years studying the effects of polluted ocean water on human health. She said the risks of swimming in polluted water range from mild respiratory infections to possible infections with antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Leonard’s work has found that people who swim in the ocean regularly “are more likely to experience things like gastrointestinal ailments and ear ailments,” she said, and that people who are in the ocean on a regular basis, particularly surfers, are “much more likely to harbor [antibiotic-] resistant bacteria in their guts.”

The area around where Soquel Creek drains into the ocean is where the most unhealthy water quality will be.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

After looking at the water quality data for Capitola Beach, Leonard said she “might consider a different activity” than swimming if she were to visit, perhaps stand-up paddleboarding. Noting that water quality changes on a daily basis, she wouldn’t completely write off a dip in the ocean at Capitola, and acknowledged that many people wouldn’t be as cautious as she is. “I think it’s quite an individual choice about what you do with this information,” she said.

Luke Ginger is a water-quality scientist at Heal the Bay and the author of the annual beach report card summary and analysis. “We don’t want to scare anyone away from the beach,” he said. “But we do want to let people know where they should maybe take more precautions. That’s why we pull out these beach bummers [and] designate them every year.”

Ginger said the most important thing to do is to check the water quality before you go to the beach. “Over the summer there are going to be long stretches of time where the water quality is fine, so we just recommend checking out the beach report card before you head out, just to verify that it’s OK.”

Ginger also cautioned that young children and older adults are the most vulnerable to infections and other ailments from polluted water, so those groups could consider extra caution. But that doesn’t mean kids should stay away from Junior Guards, or from learning to surf in Capitola’s gentle waves. “With the proper precautions, those kids will be OK,” Ginger said.

Tips to stay safe when water pollution is an issue

  • Check the water quality before you go. Try this report from Santa Cruz County Environmental Health, or head to Heal the Bay’s weekly report card.
  • Avoid the area where Soquel Creek dumps out into the ocean. Ginger recommended swimming at least 100 yards up or down the coast from the outlet.
  • Avoid storm drains: Ginger said they can be hard to spot from the beach, but suggests keeping your eyes peeled for “a big concrete box-looking structure out on the sand.”
  • Shower after swimming. Using the showers at the beach is a good idea, but Ginger also recommends showering with soap as soon as you get home.