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By Donna Littlejohn, Daily Breeze
Heal the Bay released its annual beach report card for the best and worst beaches Wednesday. The inner Cabrillo Beach shown here scores poorly. Chuck Bennett — Staff Photographer
From dead lawns to water rationing, California’s four-year drought has brought its share of misery. But despair not, a light shines in the darkness: cleaner ocean water.
Heal the Bay’s annual beach report card, released Wednesday, was filled with A and B grades as the state’s historic dry conditions — which created less polluted runoff — were credited with keeping coastal waters mostly healthy for swimmers.
South Bay beaches — with a few glaring exceptions — aced Heal the Bay’s annual beach report card for the second year in a row.
“We still have work to do as it relates to wet weather (conditions),” said James Alamillo of Heal the Bay. But generally, he said, dry summer letter grades continued to hold steady in the A and B range.
There is this caution: Grades likely will plummet should the state get hit with predicted excessive rains from an El Niño condition this coming winter.
“If this El Niño lives up to its hype and we get anything like 20 inches or plus, then, yeah, you’ll see water quality impacted,” said Alamillo, who noted that grades would be affected across the board — wet and dry conditions, summer and winter, alike.
Efforts are being made to counter that pattern in the future, he said, as infrastructure and the state’s overall environmental practices focus more on capturing and cleaning stormwater to lessen the impacts of coming droughts and prevent dirty stormwater runoff from dumping into the ocean.
But the work is costly and it will be awhile before upgrades are sufficiently in place to prevent El Niño pollution impacts.
During the El Niño event in 2004-05, when some 30 inches of rain fell, Alamillo said, “We saw poor water quality where rivers, creeks and storm drains were discharging into the ocean directly through mid-July, even though it hadn’t rained in a month. All the hillsides were still draining.”
But for now, beachgoers can grab the sunscreen and feel encouraged. Southern California’s coastal waters offer what is generally a sunny summer outlook for 2015.
The yearlong survey of the state’s more than 400 beaches — this is the 25th year of Heal the Bay’s report card — awarded about 95 percent of them A and B grades during dry summer conditions.
Also contributing to the positive outcome: some 20 years of infrastructure improvements focusing on sewer systems, pump stations, treatment plants and storm drains that are blamed for dumping pollution into the ocean each year.
“The payoff is looking at the great water quality we see in the summer months,” Alamillo said.
The annual report card is based on water sampling for fecal bacteria pollution conducted by health agencies along the West Coast. Locations are graded on an A-F scale based on samples collected. The higher the grade, the lower the risk of swimmers getting ill with intestinal bugs, skin rashes and ear and upper respiratory infections.
Children are especially vulnerable, Alamillo said, because their immune systems are still developing.
Making the group’s honor roll for best beaches this year were Bluff Cove in Palos Verdes Estates and Abalone Cove Shoreline Park and Portuguese Bend Cove in Rancho Palos Verdes.
Also excelling with A+ summer grades were El Segundo (at Grand Avenue); Manhattan Beach (at 40th and 28th streets and Pier Avenue); Hermosa Beach (at 26th Street); Malaga Cove and Bluff Cove in Palos Verdes Estates; Long Point, Abalone Cove and Portuguese Bend in Rancho Palos Verdes; and Wilder annex in San Pedro.
Close behind, with A grades, were the Ballona Creek mouth in Marina del Rey; Culver Boulevard in Playa del Rey; beaches at LAX and the Hyperion plant; Pier Avenue in Hermosa Beach; Herondo and Topaz streets and Avenue I in Redondo Beach; Royal Palms Beach in San Pedro; and the ocean side of Cabrillo Beach, also in San Pedro.
Avalon Beach at Catalina Island was among the success stories, moving from one of the worst beaches in recent years to a C last year and an A this year.
“That’s a happy-ending story,” Alamillo said. Leaking sewage from the old island town, which is a huge tourist destination, had long made the harbor water unhealthy.
“The drains all sloped to the beach,” he said. Work, costing millions of dollars, was extensive and included drain repairs and sand replacement that took years.
“This is where we point to say if you invest in the infrastructure,” it will pay off, he said.
Long Beach also fared well, earning largely top ocean quality grades.
But along with the good comes the bad.
San Pedro’s inner Cabrillo Beach made its 13th consecutive annual appearance on the group’s “Beach Bummer” list of the 10 worst beaches for swimming, coming in at No. 9. Although it received a D instead of an F this year, it makes little difference, Alamillo said.
“You’re still having poor water quality and exposing people unnecessarily to unhealthful water,” he said.
While he noted that some Heal the Bay staffers may disagree with him, Alamillo said, “I believe that place should be just shut down from public contact. … When you get on our bottom-10 list for 13 straight years, there’s something that may be beyond the city of L.A.’s control to protect beachgoer health there.”
The report itself states: “Simply stated, ‘Beach Goers Should Not Swim at this Beach.’ Despite extensive water quality improvement projects, poor water quality continues to plague this beach. … The city of Los Angeles continues to try to improve water quality at this site, yet it remains to be seen if they can successfully resolve the problem. One solution, which may appear dramatic, may be to eliminate swimming at this beach as a matter of protecting public health.”
Los Angeles Councilman Joe Buscaino recently proposed using part of the area for a dog beach.
In contrast, the outer beach at Cabrillo — just 150 yards away from the harbor inside the breakwater — again received an A for water quality.
Mother’s Beach in Marina del Rey remains similarly stuck on the Beach Bummer list, illustrating the problem in keeping sheltered, man-made beaches with little water circulation clean.
Compounding the danger for swimmers, Alamillo said, is that the areas — with their protected beaches and calm waters — attract young families and children, who are most susceptible to becoming sick.
Areas around piers also pose problems, Alamillo said. “These structures become a habitat or home to birds and fishing,” he said.
Santa Monica Pier, for example, has bird netting beneath the structure to prevent roosting by pigeons and gulls, one of the main sources of ocean bacteria. But it is difficult to maintain, Alamillo said, and the area received an F this year.
And overall, Los Angeles County still leads the state in the number of beaches with poor water quality, according to a Heal the Bay news release. One in 13 of the county’s beaches received grades of C or lower during the summer season, the busiest for beaches. During wet weather, nearly half of the county’s beaches received an F grade, posing health risks to the area’s high number of year-round surfers, divers and other water sports aficionados.
Urban runoff remains the leading source of bacterial pollution at local shorelines. A typical rainstorm can funnel as many as 10 billion gallons of polluted runoff directly into Santa Monica Bay, according to Heal the Bay research.
The full Heal the Bay report can be seen at www.healthebay.org/.
Reach the author at Donna.Littlejohn@dailybreeze.com .
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