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Making the Grade

CowelBeachThe quest to identify sources of high levels of bacteria at Cowell Beach continues

With straight As on Heal the Bay’s annual “beach report card” for 10 out of 13 Santa Cruz County beaches—Main Beach, Seabright, and even Cowell Beach at the Stairs, to name a few—it would seem that Santa Cruz boasts a high coastal GPA. But in recent years, one Santa Cruz beach just can’t seem to pass: Cowell Beach west of the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf.

Heal the Bay, a Santa Monica-based nonprofit, compiles weekly water quality data on beaches up and down the Pacific Coast and puts out a report card every spring. Grades are determined by the concentrations of bacteria detected in the ocean surrounding each beach that have the potential to get a person sick. In the 2012-2013 report, which was released on May 22, Cowell Beach received an F, prompting concern in the community.

Like a concerned parent, the City of Santa Cruz is taking measures to improve the water quality at Cowell Beach and up its failing grade. With tax revenue resulting from the passage of Measure E in 2008, the city upgraded the trash receptacles near the wharf, remove trash from beaches, sweep the wharf daily, and sift and rake the sands on Cowell and Main beaches during the summer.

These and other actions taken by the city have improved certain aspects of the beaches, but have not significantly decreased the bacteria levels in the water near Cowell Beach enough to give it a passing grade from Heal the Bay.

The city has yet to pinpoint all sources of the bacteria, but, with the help of researchers from Stanford University, like Alexandria Boehm, they may be getting closer.

State funding provided by the Clean Beach Initiative allowed Boehm and her colleagues at Stanford, in collaboration with researchers from UC Los Angeles and UC Santa Barbara, to begin the Source Identification Protocol Project (SIPP), which began testing the water quality at Cowell Beach in 2010 due to its consistent placement on Heal the Bay’s “Beach Bummer” list.

news3-2“We did a number of different types of studies to determine how bacteria levels varied with the tide and the sun,” says Boehm, “and how concentrations of contaminants varied at the beach relative to different sources to try to narrow down what the sources could be.”

The researchers found that one of the biggest sources of contamination stemmed from the two pipelines that drain from Neary Lagoon to Cowell Beach.

After finding high concentrations of fecal bacteria leaking from the drains, Boehm and individuals from Santa Cruz Public Works, such as civil engineer Steve Wolfman, tracked down at least one source of the bacteria while they were checking sewer pipes around an apartment building approximately 1,000 feet from the beach.

“We tested the catch basin that was there, and it was hot,” says Wolfman.

After Wolfman and researchers tested the apartment’s sewer pipes using dye, they found the source of the leak and repaired it, but even with the fix, the bacteria levels at Cowell Beach remain high.

Although the pipes drain water from Neary Lagoon, Boehm and the other researchers believe that the source of the bacteria is not coming from the lagoon itself, but from other leaky sewer drains that connect to the pipes, as well as open human defecation in rivers and streams in the area.

The next step for the city is to install a shutoff valve on the Neary Lagoon drainpipes that will allow city workers to clean and inspect the line during the summer, and further pinpoint the sources of the bacteria. The shutoff valves will be installed in the fall and winter of 2014.

“Our goal is to see some improvement this summer based on what we’ve done up to this point,” says Wolfman. “And that next summer we will see additional improvement because of the isolation of Neary Lagoon.”

With ongoing studies like the dye test currently facilitated by the Stanford researchers, and the upcoming measures to be taken, the city hopes to see Cowell Beach on the honor roll next year.

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