MANHATTAN BEACH, Calif. — The beaches are back, and according to research taken from the coastal watchdogs at Heal the Bay, there are plenty of excellent Southland beaches for people to enjoy this summer. Even so, a handful of beaches across California, including a perennial “beach bummer” in Los Angeles County, leave something to be desired.
Heal the Bay’s complete 2020-2021 Beach Report Card covers the entirety of the west coast, from the Pacific Northwest down to Tijuana, and includes brief water quality updates from along the coast. It also features grades on freshwater sources and swimming holes, such as those along the LA River.
The good news first: 17 beaches across LA County and Orange County made Heal the Bay’s Honor Roll, achieving top water quality testing marks every week in all seasons and weather conditions. Ten of those beaches are located in OC, which ended up with the greatest representation of beaches on the Honor Roll this year.
OC also has the distinction of not having a single “Beach Bummer” this year, which is due to a handful of factors, said Heal the Bay Water Quality Scientist Luke Ginger.
“Orange County, in recent years, has been committed to water quality, like county-wide projects to diverting storm drains or putting water treatment devices in storm drains before they flow into the ocean,” Ginger said.
Plus, the county tests its water constantly — over about 42 miles of coastline, it has about 130 sampling locations. LA County, by contrast, has about 70 miles of coastline and about 100 sampling locations.
That a handful of beaches in and around Malibu are on this year’s Honor Roll is great news as well, Ginger explained, after less-than-stellar reports.
"Two reports ago, those Malibu beaches had a dip in water quality. We were thinking that it might have been linked to the Woolsey fire of Nov. 2018," he said. "It’s well established that, after a wildfire, there’s bad water quality — metals, chemicals, bacteria — because there’s no vegetation to trap that water. The soil can become really hard after a wildfire, so less water can seep into the ground."
Whether the Woolsey fire contributed to those bad grades might be borne out upon completion of a study that Ginger is working on with teams from LA-area universities. Those results won’t be out for another year, at least.
Heal the Bay CEO Dr. Shelley Luce believes that one significant factor in improving Malibu-area beaches is local investment in the infrastructure.
Septic systems are being better taken care of, and a local network of residents and businesses connecting with a waste treatment plant has been expanding.
"Secondly, the restoration of Malibu Lagoon has improved the hydrology there, so we no longer get flushes into the ocean of high-bacteria water," Luce said. "Animal waste was a huge problem there, and combined with the septics, it builds up and flushes out."
Releasing Heal the Bay's annual Beach Report Card and River Report Card.— Heal the Bay (@HealTheBay) June 29, 2021
Our comprehensive scientific reports analyze water quality and bacterial pollution at 500 CA beaches and at 28 LA County freshwater recreation sites from 2020-2021.
On the flip-side, LA County has only one beach on Heal the Bay’s “Beach Bummer” list of the 10 spots that have the poorest summer, dry-weather grades, and it’s a perpetual problem.
Mother’s Beach in Marina Del Rey is frequently among the poorest testing sites in California — largely because it’s such a popular destination for families. It's enclosed in Marina Del Rey, not an open-water beach, so it doesn’t receive the same kind of recycling wave action that other nearby beaches might get. Plus, it’s tucked inside a marina, where oil and other pollutants are common to find on the water.
LA County has worked to improve water circulation in recent years, but it hasn’t quite been enough to make it off of the organization’s list of dishonorable mentions.
When asked what more could be done, Luce frowned.
“This is not a typical Heal the Bay answer, but… I think that beach is not suitable for swimming,” Luce said. “It’s never going to be clean.”
The entire marina, she explained, was all once part of the Ballona Wetlands, until it was dug out for the marina — and Mother’s Beach was created in the middle of it.
“I think we should let it become a wetland again. People won’t like that, because it’s a nice accessible beach with parking and restrooms and food. And I hate to take that away from them. But I hate more seeing little kids swimming where they can get sick.”
The most important thing that a person can do for their own health around the ocean, Luce noted, is to stay out of the water after rainstorms. Changing rainfall patterns have led to more “first flush” events, where storm water runoff from the streets and into the ocean includes higher concentrations of pollutants: human and animal waste, oil, bacteria, and trash, among other things.
“We’re used to getting a big rainfall at the begining of the year and then rain throughout the winter, and each rainfall is less polluting than the one before. We don’t have that anymore,” Luce said. “Now there’s more space between, our rainfalls are getting farther between and heavier, so they’re washing a lot out. That’s just one aspect of how climate change is going to affect our daily lives.”
For more on Heal the Bay’s Beach Report Card, including real-time data, visit here.