Cowell Beach next to the Santa Cruz Wharf.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Cowell Beach, once among California’s most polluted, gets ‘A’ for cleanliness for fourth straight year

For the fourth consecutive year, Cowell Beach received a high grade on nonprofit Heal The Bay’s annual beach report card, keeping it off of the “Beach Bummers” list of notably dirty beaches. Changes in infrastructure at the wharf and Neary Lagoon have made the difference, says environmental compliance manager Akin Babatola.

Have something to say? Lookout welcomes letters to the editor, within our policies, from readers. Guidelines here.

Santa Cruz’s Cowell Beach spent nearly a decade on Heal the Bay’s “Beach Bummer” list, a ranking of the most polluted beaches in California. But for the fourth year in a row, the popular Santa Cruz beach has received a much-improved bill of health from the Santa Monica-based environmental advocacy group.

Last week, Heal The Bay published its annual Beach Report Card, which examines the amount of fecal pollution at beaches along the West Coast in order to keep beachgoers safe.

Cowell Beach, west of the municipal wharf, received an “A” for the organization’s Summer Dry Grade based on water samples taken during the prime recreation season from April through October. It also received an “A” for the Winter Dry Grade based on samples taken on days without rain between November and March.

Akin Babatola, laboratory and environmental compliance manager for City of Santa Cruz Public Works, said that four years ago, his lab began to take more precise water samples to determine the source of the bacterial problem at Cowell Beach.

“At the wharf itself, the bacterial concentration was high. Then 75 feet east or west, it was a little lower,” he said. “It established that the focus of the bacteria was under the wharf and spreading in each direction.”

Then, Babatola said, the lab had to determine the bacteria’s source through DNA analysis, which soon led to an answer.

“It showed that these were not human sources, so we were able to progressively establish that it was in fact from birds that were roosting heavily under the wharf,” he said, adding that people feeding the birds further contributes to bacteria from the birds’ fecal matter making its way into the water.

Cowell Beach in Santa Cruz
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

From there, it was a matter of finding solutions. With cooperation from the Santa Cruz City Council, city and county wastewater labs and nonprofit organizations such as Save The Waves and Surfrider Foundation, the city’s parks and recreation department installed netting under the wharf to stop birds from roosting — a fairly minor undertaking that yielded fast results.

“Almost immediately, the bacteria populations dropped — and not just at the wharf, but even at the places with lower concentrations,” said Babatola.

He added that the city went “above and beyond” what the evidence suggested and performed further preventative work past the installation of the netting. The public works department installed a plate at the Neary Lagoon outfall pipe, which discharges excess municipal water to the Cowell area. That served to divert bacteria-laden water from the lagoon into the wastewater treatment facility to be treated before being discharged more than a mile away from Cowell Beach, leaving no chance of high-bacteria water flowing into the nearby waters.

Overall, Santa Cruz County’s beaches scored well this year during the summer months, with 93% of county beaches receiving A’s or B’s. Winter grades were even better, with all but one of the county beaches receiving A’s or B’s.

Capitola Beach west of the jetty scored an F for Summer Dry and Wet Weather grades. While the beach didn’t make the “Beach Bummer” list this year, Heal the Bay has included this section of Capitola Beach among its most polluted several times since starting the beach report card. Soquel Creek flows into the ocean near Capitola Beach, releasing bacteria into the ocean.

Wet weather grades, which consist of samples taken during or three days following a rain event greater than a tenth of an inch, were the county’s only weak spot, with just 21% of beaches getting A’s or B’s compared to a state average of 59%. But there is a good reason for this.

The report says that Santa Cruz County received 42 inches of rain between April 2022 and March 2023, 63% above an average year’s rainfall. That had a serious negative impact on the wet weather grades, because more rain typically means more contaminants and pollution get flushed into the ocean from drains, rivers, and streams.

Surfboards on Cowell Beach.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

That could explain a concerning tidbit from the beach report card, which notes that 36,000 gallons of sewage flowed into the San Lorenzo River less than a half-mile upstream from Main Beach in January. The organization said it was “alarmed” because it could not find a record of a beach closure despite a potential health hazard. Babatola said that he was surprised at the observation, as he “would remember such a momentous event” as a large sewage spill.

“Our environmental compliance inspectors would have brought a sample to the laboratory and we would have analyzed it, and that did not occur,” he said.

Though Babatola does not recall a sewage spill, he points to January’s storm deluge as a potential reason for high levels of bacteria in the river, as excessive water from storms brings more pollution and contaminants into nearby streams and the ocean.

“Storms accompany high bacteria, and urban runoff contributes highly to bacteria levels,” he said.