Blue Water Task Force, Partnerships, Solutions, Source Identification, Water Quality, Illness, Public Notification
June 06 2016

Cowell’s Beach, Still a Beach Bummer but Progress Being Made

by Mara Dias

For the third year in a row Cowell's beach has been ranked California's #1 Beach Bummer by the Heal the Bay's Report Card which was released just before the Memorial Day holiday weekend.   In fact, this is the 6th year running that Cowell's Beach has appeared on the Heal the Bay's dreaded top ten list of dirtiest beaches in California.  

The good news is that there is an active and engaged group of local NGOs and government agencies that are intent on solving the bacteria pollution problem at Cowell's.  Upon the urgings of the Santa Cruz Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation and their lcoal partners Save the Waves, the Coastal Watershed Council and the Sierra Club the City formed the Cowell Beach Working Group after Cowell Beach repeatedly earned the dishononarable placement on the annual Beach Bummer list. The Chapter, who had been conductly weekly bacteria tests at this beach, amped up their efforts to support the Working Group by sampling the nearby surf breaks and along a vertical and horizontal transect to the beach to give a better understanding of the geographical distribution of the bacteria problem.  See map of sampling sites.  

After an investigation of the potential sources of pollution and a review of Surfrider's water quality data, the Cowell Beach Working Group released their recommendations for priority management actions that the City should take in order to clean up Cowell's Beach.   The water quality data indicated that unlike beaches that are affected by stormwater and urban runoff, the bacteria levels at Cowell's Beach are highest during the warm, dry summer months and the bacteria counts are highest right under the Santa Cruz Pier and drop off significantly with distance from the pier.  See the Chapter's data below.   

These finding seem to suggest that pigeons roosting underneath the Pier and dropping their waste directly into the water may be the major source of the bacteria, and the Cowell Working Group led by Save the Waves, made these recommendations to the City of Santa Cruz to start reversing the trend. See previous blog post for more details.

  • Put in screening to reduce gull and pigeon roosting under the wharf.
    • Continue to inspect and fix sewer laterals to eliminate human sources of bacteria.
  • Monitor groundwater in surrounding area
  • Increase police presence for night time and early morning patrols on beach.

Work is already underway to install netting, or bird exclusionary barriers, underneath the first 200 feet of the Pier closest to the beach, and all work should be complete by the end of June. Watch this video to see for yourself how this netting is going up.

The Surfrider chapter and their local partners hope this solves the problem, but the City has already approved recommendations to take further action if necessary. A technical science advisory committee has been appointed by the Cowell Working Group to administer a microbial source tracking study which will include multiple source DNA testing (from sewage laterals, lagoon and all possible sources). If these test results indicate human sources, then the chapter is ready to start undertaking a groundwater study to further pinpoint the exact source of pollution so corrective actions can be made.  

For now, the Chapter will continue their efforts to better inform the community on what is happening down at the beach.  Chapter BWTF Coordinator, Sam Blakesly, who is finishing up his degree in Environmental Studies at UC Santa Cruz has presented a poster of the history of the bacteria problems at Cowell's as well as Surfrider's engagement in solving this issue at his school.   Sam recommends that surfers and beachgoers who like to visit Cowell's Beach to stay smart and safe by keeping their distance from the pier when they go into the water.  You only have to head down the beach a little way to enjoy the rest of Cowell's Beach and the surf zone which are generally quite clean.  Check out the Santa Cruz Chapter's BWTF website to view their water quality data and Know Before You Go!