After experiencing a wetter-than-average winter this year with record rainfall and 19 atmospheric rivers, Southern California’s beaches saw a decrease in water quality, Heal the Bay’s latest Beach Report Card shows.
Released on Thursday, June 14, the environmental nonprofit’s 33rd annual Beach Report Card had Dana Point and San Clemente beaches largely scoring well in Summer Dry periods with most areas averaging an A grade.
The Beach Report Card is broken down into three grade categories: Summer Dry measured from April through October; Winter Dry from November through March; and Wet Weather from April through March.
During the annual study, researchers examine the amounts of fecal indicator bacteria measured along the coast that represent a potential health risk to beachgoers. Samples taken during the three-day period after 0.1 inches of rainfall or more make up Wet Weather grades.
In Southern California, 96% of the Summer Dry grades were A’s and B’s—slightly above average. Winter Dry grades and Wet Weather grades among Southern California beaches were both below average.
According to the report, 82% of SoCal beaches received A and B grades during winter dry period, while only 52% received high marks for the wet weather grades.
Grades in Orange County were better than average, with 98% of beaches receiving A’s and B’s for Summer Dry; 94% receiving A’s and B;s for Winter Dry; and 63% receiving A’s and B’s for Wet Weather.
Likely because of the record rainfall this year, Heal the Bay had the shortest Honor Roll list ever, with only two beaches qualifying for the top water quality designation: Point Loma Lighthouse in San Diego and Bean Hollow State Beach in San Mateo.
Water quality of samples taken after a rainstorm is often worse than dry weather samples as rainwater washes pesticides, fertilizers, animal waste, trash and sometimes even sewage out to the ocean.
“Beachgoers who visit beaches during or after a rain event have an increased risk of contracting ear infections, eye infections, upper respiratory infections, skin rashes, and gastrointestinal illnesses,” the report stated. “Swimmers are advised to stay out of the water for a minimum of three days following a significant rain event.”
This year saw an overall decline in wet weather grades as some sewage lines flooded with rainwater and overflowed. After a rainstorm, the report explained, fecal indicator bacteria “densities often far exceed state health criteria for recreational water use.”
This year, more than 45 million gallons of sewage spilled into the ocean and waterways, 16 million more gallons than last year. Heal the Bay urged governments to “invest significantly in sewage infrastructure updates and public notification protocols to ensure the safety of all beach visitors.”
In March, a stretch of Doheny State Beach was closed after an overflow of the main sewer line in San Juan Capistrano caused a 4,000-gallon sewage spill a the San Juan Creek outfall.
In total, 28,845 gallons of sewage spilled into Orange County Waterways over the past year.
Though many beachgoers head to the water year-round, municipalities are required to sample water quality, at a minimum, once a week during the months of April through October.
For the 2022 Summer Dry Season, the Pico Drain at North Beach was given a B while all other San Clemente Beaches earned A and A+ scores, including the San Clemente Pier—which had been ranked as the No. 1 most polluted beach on Heal the Bay’s Beach Bummer list back in 2019.
Excluding the Pico Drain, which earned an A+ for the Wet Weather category, none of San Clemente’s beaches were given Winter Dry and Wet Weather grades.
Beaches in Dana Point including Salt Creek, Doheny State, Capistrano and Baby all received A ratings during the Summer Dry season. Areas around the Dana Point Harbor received A and A+ Summer Dry ratings, while wet weather grades ranged from A+ to D depending on where samples were taken.
Poche Beach, Poche Creek outlet, San Juan Creek and Doheny State Beach received F’s for their wet weather grades.
Poche Beach, located on the border of Capistrano Beach and San Clemente, was the only Orange County beach to be listed on the Beach Bummer list this year—the fourth time in 10 years.
“Poche Beach receives polluted runoff from a storm drain that flows directly onto the beach,” the report stated. “Equipment designed to clean runoff from the storm drain was running at partial capacity in summer 2022, which was likely the cause.”
The report continued that the county may need to “reassess its water quality improvement strategy for this beach since it is no stranger to the Beach Bummer list.”
In response to the Beach Report, OC Parks Interim Public Information Officer Danielle Kennedy stated that “OC Parks continues to operate clean, safe beaches for the public to enjoy.”
“Heal the Bay’s latest report provides an overall positive rating for County-operated beaches including Salt Creek Beach, Dana Strands Beach and Capistrano Beach Park,” Kennedy said. “OC Parks continues to support partner agencies in ongoing efforts to address water quality-related challenges impacting Poche Beach.”
City of San Clemente management did not respond to requests for comment as of this posting.