Cowell Beach bacteria levels remain hazardous while the city seeks to isolate the source
Boasting smooth swells, perfect for beginning surfers, and located at a prime location next to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, Cowell Beach, just west of the wharf, would seem like the ideal destination for young families. But in recent years, the location has been plagued by an invisible contagion well known to locals, but not always apparent to visitors.
“Everybody in town knows there’s dirty water at that beach, and we’re pretty scared to take our kids there, but trust me, the word is not getting out to the tourists,” says local big-wave surfer Ken Collins.
For the fifth year in a row, Cowell Beach has received a failing grade from the Santa Monica-based nonprofit Heal the Bay in their annual beach report card. Heal the Bay studies water quality on beaches up and down the West Coast, and releases their findings in a report each spring. But Cowell Beach hasn’t always been a dump; it received straight A’s in the early 2000s. Then, beginning in 2010, it placed in the top two slots on Heal the Bay’s “Beach Bummer List” year after year.
With more than 90 percent of samples taken between April and October of 2013 at Cowell Beach exceeding the state’s bacterial standards, city officials are working to isolate the sources of the bacteria. But in the meantime, Collins feels that locals and tourists alike are walking away from a day at the beach contaminated with disease.
“No one knows how many tourists are coming here and then going home with a staph infection or an ear infection,” says Collins.
It is true that the water doesn’t seem to be having a big impact on beach tourism: despite the high bacteria levels, the Dream Inn, which towers above Cowell Beach, has not experienced any significant drop in business, according to Max Schultz, the Dream Inn’s sales director. He says that most of their guests hail from the Sacramento Valley and the Bay Area, and oftentimes are wholly unaware of the beach’s poor water quality.
“I don’t think they’re alarmed in advance before getting here,” says Schultz. “I think it’s when they see the sign posted at the beach. That’s when it comes to their awareness.”
In a similar statement emailed to GT, Kris Reyes, community relations director for the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, expressed that the Boardwalk remains unaffected by the water quality at Cowell Beach.
“While important from an environmental quality and overall guest experience standpoint, the issues at Cowell Beach have little to no impact on the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk,” Reyes writes.
Christina Glynn, communications director for the Conference and Visitors’ Council, says in an email that the CVC does not keep metrics on how Cowell impacts business. But, she adds the group “supports the city’s long commitment to water quality and the health of our beaches, and Santa Cruz continues a long commitment to water quality and the health of our coastline.”
Collins says that while the tourist dollars keep pouring in, city officials are not working hard enough to resolve the issue. But Santa Cruz Public Works civil engineer Steve Wolfman assures that progress has been made to alleviate the problem, and more work is being done to investigate the elusive origins of the bacteria.
With the aid of a Stanford-led study last year, researchers along with Public Works found that one of the most substantial sources of bacteria flowed from the two pipelines that drain from Neary Lagoon to Cowell Beach. They tracked down a sewage line from an apartment building that was leaking into the pipes and repaired it, but the issue remained.
The latest effort came in May, in the form of shut off gates installed in the two drainage lines, which prevent the water from the lagoon, rich in fish and bird feces, from flowing toward the beach. Although no lagoon water will flow through the pipes, the pipes will take on groundwater, so Wolfman and others at Public Works will be installing a small pump station to keep the pipes dry. This will allow them to inspect the pipes for any signs of contamination.
“After we do that we will perform more testing to isolate if there is any human-associated bacteria,” says Wolfman. “If there isn’t, or if it’s minor, then we need to look at other natural issues that might be affecting the beach there.”
The testing methods will identify the specific DNA signatures of the bacteria present at Cowell Beach to determine their source. Public Works will also be inspecting surrounding sewer lines in search of any possible leaks.
Some in the community, like Collins, feel that the Wastewater Treatment Plant may be leaching sewage into the ground near Cowell Beach, but Wolfman asserts that testing has determined that treated wastewater is not entering the lagoon, or Cowell Beach. He notes the outfall line that carries the treated wastewater from the plant travels away from Cowell Beach toward Almar Avenue, out a mile offshore, and ultimately terminates about a hundred feet below the surface of the ocean.
With the city taking further steps to determine the sources of bacteria infesting the waters of Cowell Beach, it is possible that the sand and sea west of the wharf may earn a passing grade next year, but Collins isn’t impressed by the city’s progress.
“It’s really a unique place that we’re in,” he says, “and we’re going to have to come up with some more unique solutions.”