07 • 02 • 2020

Victory at Cowell’s! Cowell’s off the Beach Bummer List

By Colleen Henn

A decade-long campaign to clean up Cowell's Beach in Santa Cruz just came to a happy completion, when for the first time in 10 years, Cowell Beach in Santa Cruz is not on Heal The Bay’s “Beach Bummer” list.

For 30 years, Heal the Bay has released an annual “Beach Report Card” that highlights the risk of recreating at beaches along the west coast by ascribing each beach a letter grade.  The “Beach Bummer” list, a frequently referenced portion of the report, sheds light on the most problematic beaches based on water quality samples collected during dry, summer weather. Year after year, Cowell's Beach has reserved a place on the list of top 10 most polluted beaches in California. 

Getting to the Root of Water Quality Issues

The Surfrider Foundation Santa Cruz Chapter hosts one of Surfrider’s longest-standing Blue Water Task Force labs, established back in March of 1993. Blue Water Task Force (BWTF) labs measure fecal indicator bacteria levels in recreational waters and compare them to water quality standards set to protect public health. Surfrider chapters use this volunteer water testing program to raise awareness of local pollution problems and to bring together communities to implement solutions.

Cowell’s was one of the first seven sampling locations that the Chapter began monitoring weekly over 25 years ago, and their dataset continues today. Motivated by years of reporting high bacteria levels at Cowell’s, the chapter decided to start investigating the possible sources of pollution and work towards permanent solutions. In doing so, the Chapter conducted and published a comprehensive Lower San Lorenzo River Watershed Study, in which upstream sources were analyzed for fecal indicator bacteria to determine the source of pollution downstream, at Cowell’s. 

As public awareness grew about the pollution at Cowell’s, the Surfrider Santa Cruz Chapter joined forces with the Save the Waves Coalition, Sierra Club, and local government officials in the “Cowell’s Working Group,” to get to the root of the water quality problems that persist there.

The Working Group, established in 2014, took an ecosystem approach and applied the following remedial measures: 

  • Carried out source tracking studies to identify the sources of fecal bacteria pollution.
  • Installed screening to reduce gull and pigeon roosting under the wharf, as birds dropping feces directly into the surf were identified as major contributors of the pollution.
  • Updated management practices at Neary Lagoon, which included the installation of gates that divert polluted water to the nearby wastewater treatment plant, rather than flowing directly onto the beach. 

The removal of Cowell's Beach from the Beach Bummer List is a testament to the benefit of a passionate group of individuals, community groups and local government working together. 

Despite this win, the Santa Cruz Chapter and Cowell’s Working Group plan to continue their efforts to improve water quality at Cowell’s, by conducting a public health study, further monitoring water quality and enhancing public understanding of the situation.

Not-So-Positive Outcome for Surfrider’s San Mateo Chapter

While we celebrate this victory for Santa Cruz, the Report Card did not bring the best news for San Mateo County, where unfortunately, six of the ten beaches on the “Beach Bummer” list are located. Particularly disappointing is the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, topping the list as the most polluted beach in the State. 

Much like Cowell’s, the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve has long been tested by the San Mateo Chapter’s BWTF program volunteers, with data dating back to 2002. Over the years, the chapter has been aware of the water quality issues and has worked with the San Mateo County Environmental Health Services Division to identify and reduce point sources of pollution, but so far, it’s still not enough. Chronic pollution in a Marine Protected Area is a sobering reminder that we have much more work to do to improve the health of our coast and bay beaches.

“As a passionate group of community members who rely on local beaches for recreation, the Surfrider Foudation’s San Mateo Chapter is “committed to working with regional local government municipalities and other local community groups to discover the sources of pollution and place permanent solutions that improve water quality all SMC beaches,” stated the San Mateo Chapter.

The chapter intends to work even more closely with local officials to discover the root of these pollution problems and create solutions.

Staying Safe at the Beach this Summer

Due to COVID-19 related safety concerns, the San Mateo and Santa Cruz chapters’ Blue Water Task Force program paused water testing efforts in mid-March. With new safety procedures in place, both Chapters plan to restart the program in the coming weeks with the promise of providing up-to-date water quality information to the community.

Surfrider’s Blue Water Task Force Program promises to provide current water quality information to community members so they know where there is safe, clean water to swim, surf, and play in. Especially now, Surfrider Foundation understands how important it is for you to have access to the information needed to keep you safe. Find a Blue Water Task Force beach near you at, and if there are no labs serving your community yet, find your nearest local government testing using Surfrider’s Beach Monitoring Programs Database. 

Please consider supporting the Surfrider Foundation’s fight for clean water by becoming a member or making a tax-deductible donation here.