Cowell Beach is famous for easy waves, gorgeous views of Santa Cruz and, unfortunately, being the “dirtiest beach in California.”
Heal the Bay, an environmental nonprofit based in Santa Monica, hands out the designation, annually ranking West Coast beaches according to the bacteria-richness of their waters. This year’s “Beach Bummer” rankings are due to arrive just before Memorial Day weekend, and city officials hope Cowell slides down the list. Their secret weapon: chicken wire. Lots and lots of it.
Water under the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf has grown cleaner, as the city of Santa Cruz and environmental nonprofits report a decline in bacteria levels following the installation of anti-pigeon fencing just above the shoreline. Though the fencing may have come too late to repair Cowell’s unfortunate rep this year, city officials and environmentalists remain cautiously optimistic about rankings in the upcoming report.
“We’ve made incredible progress toward determining the root cause behind these elevated bacteria levels,” says Vice Mayor David Terrazas, who’s been involved in cleaning up Cowell’s waters since it first appeared on the list. “I’d like to see us clean up whatever’s causing the issue, but also to get off Heal the Bay’s list entirely.”
Though Heal the Bay names Cowell and nearby Main Beach specifically, the wharf is the true bacterial epicenter, where levels are highest in shallow waters just below the beams. Walk 100 feet past the lifeguard tower, according to city staffers, and those results dissipate, with bacteria dropping to near-undetectable levels.
Cowell first landed on Heal the Bay’s report card in 2010, when it claimed second place among West Coast beaches whose waters exceeded state standards for bacterial counts. Cowell danced between first and second place in the intervening years, and has claimed the top spot since 2014.
That same year, members of local environmental nonprofits like the Sierra Club, Save the Waves and Surfrider Foundation partnered with the city and county of Santa Cruz to form the Cowell Beach Working Group, an organization dedicated to identifying and neutralizing the cause behind the high bacterial counts.
The group began by investigating a list of prospective polluters, from leaky sewers to animal waste left by dogs, birds and marine life. The lineup narrowed as the group tested hundreds of water samples over two and a half years, which revealed basically no traces whatsoever of human or dog DNA. That left one culprit: birds.
In 2016, the group installed fencing beneath the wharf, blocking pigeons from roosting and pooping into the water below. Nik Strong-Cvetich, executive director of Santa Cruz County’s own Saves the Waves, which works to conserve coastal ecosystems around the world, says the effect was immediate.
“When I first saw the results,” Strong-Cvetich says, “I thought, ‘Is there a mistake here?’”
When compared with the city’s 2015 water samples, just before the netting was installed, bacteria levels in 2016 initially dropped by more than half in late July, and continued declining through December. Save the Waves also reported a 50 percent drop in water samples that exceeded state standards.
“You could almost compare it to a car dropping from 60 to 10 miles per hour,” says Akin Babatola, the city’s environmental compliance manager. “That’s how sharp it was.”
Whether those changes will be reflected in Heal the Bay’s report is not guaranteed. Cowell’s spot on the report will be determined by water samples collected before the netting installation, which was completed in August of last year. Even then, Heal the Bay’s report is a comparison between several beaches, so Cowell could still earn first place if other beaches make greater strides in improving water quality.
“On a sanitary basis, the improvement is clear. We’ve made it,” said Akin Babatola. “On a relative basis, it’s not that easy.”
Progress aside, Babatola takes issue with the methods used to decide Heal the Bay’s rankings for dirtiest beaches. Coastal counties are legally required to routinely test bacterial levels in beach water samples. Heal the Bay relies on those results to decide their rankings.
Many areas, including Santa Cruz County, use a test called Colilert, which detects the presence of coliforms, generally a harmless type of bacteria that indicates the potential presence of viruses, parasites and disease-causing bacteria.
Babatola described the use of Colilert in this case as “flawed,” claiming the kit test tends to overestimate, as other microorganisms can falsely trigger the presence of coliforms. Colilert was originally designed to test drinking water, Babatola says, and thus doesn’t account for microorganisms found in ocean waters.
“You’re guaranteed to get a number higher than the true number of coliforms,” says Babatola, who presented his criticisms at a May 11 meeting for the Northern California Beach Water Quality Workgroup in Oakland.
Even using Colilert alone, bacterial counts still appear to be declining. But only testing throughout a full summer season—when bacteria levels reliably spike—will reveal the full extent of progress.
“If we can count them more accurately,” says Strong-Cvetich, “then I think we should go in that direction. But there’s progress being made on the overall bacteria count no matter how you count them.”
It may seem like it took an especially long time to get to the bottom of the issue, especially considering that Steve Peters, from the county’s Department of Environmental Health, told Santa Cruz Weekly five years ago that the causes of high bacteria levels were natural and may have included birds. Scott Collins, assistant to the city manager, says the process was a matter of investigating all possible contributors and ruling out the possibility of human contamination. Strong-Cvetich calls water quality “slow, arduous work.”
An independent technical advisory committee is reviewing the group’s testing methods and findings, and will recommend next steps early next year, Terrazas says. Until then, the group plans to continue modifying the netting to exclude birds that have figured out how to roost on and around it. Collins says they’ve joked about hiring a city falcon to deter persistent pigeons, just as the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club hired Rufus, a Harris Hawk, to scare off birds lingering around the 2012 Summer Olympics.
Strong-Cvetich suspects cases like Cowell’s will become more common as environmental agencies lose government funding. Just last month, the Trump administration proposed to cut the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget by 31 percent.
“We might not be able to lean on the EPA to fund these types of things,” warns Strong-Cvetich. “If we want to solve environmental problems, it’s got to start locally, and it’s got to be collaborations between nonprofits and local government.”