Lapping waves. Sand castles. Colorful umbrellas. Water with poop in it.
You might get more than you bargained for at some Bay Area beaches.
The annual Heal the Bay report is out this week, and five San Mateo County beaches made the “Beach Bummer” list for having ocean water heavily contaminated with fecal matter. Three were in Foster City, at Erckenbrack Park, Marlin Park and Gull Park. One was in Half Moon Bay, in Pillar Point Harbor at Capistrano Avenue. And one was on the open ocean: Pacifica’s main strand, Linda Mar Beach.
“This marks the fifth consecutive report where San Mateo County has multiple Beach Bummers,” according to the report by the Los Angeles-based nonprofit that has been issuing the yearly water-quality Beach Report Cards for more than 30 years.
Grades are based on water sampling at more than 500 West Coast beaches by county, state and tribal agencies, sanitation departments and effluent dischargers. For the Beach Bummer list, the water was tested in 2022, from April to October.
Here’s what Heal the Bay recommends: STAY OUT OF WATER THAT HAS LOTS OF POOP IN IT!
It’s not just the fecal bacteria, though. Most pollutants, including poop, flow into the ocean together, via storm drains, rivers and other streams, according to the group.
“We recommend using the Beach Report Card to understand the risk of getting sick,” the report said. “If beachgoers avoid the water at beaches with a poor water-quality grade based on fecal matter levels, they’re also likely avoiding other pollutants in addition to that bacteria.”
But let’s get back to the poop. The more contaminated the water is, and the more exposure to water a beachgoer has — surfers beware, the group advised — the greater the chances of contracting gastrointestinal illness — more poop! — eye and ear infections, upper respiratory infections or even “major” full-body skin rashes. Hooray, grab the sunblock!
And maybe head to San Mateo’s shining star this year: Bean Hollow State Beach just south of Pescadero. Made up of two gorgeous arcs of sand bounded by rocky outcroppings beside Highway 1, Bean Hollow is one of only two West Coast beaches to make Heal the Bay’s Honor Roll this year, for not registering a single “bacterial exceedance.”
Renn and Sarah Oler, of Utah, visiting Bean Hollow this week with their five children, were happy to hear the beach made the Honor Roll. “Nobody wants a dirty, nasty beach,” said Renn, 43, an engineer. Sarah, 39, added, “Especially when your kids are in it.”
About 30 miles down the coast in Santa Cruz, the famed Main Beach fronting the legendary Beach Boardwalk amusement park did not fall into the Beach Bummer category. But that doesn’t mean no poop! Heal the Bay bases the Bummer list on “prime recreation season” testing but also tracks levels in winter. Thirty-six thousand gallons of sewage poured into the San Lorenzo River less than a half-mile upstream from Main Beach this past January, when fierce storms wrought havoc and flooding in the Santa Cruz area, according to the group. “We are alarmed as we could not find a record of a beach closure due to the spill,” the report said.
Santa Cruz did not answer questions about the reported spill and absence of beach closure.
On San Francisco Bay in Foster City, human-made channels hinder water circulation and effective flushing by tides, waves and currents. Heal the Bay blames “pollution from the surrounding developed areas” for befouling Marlin Park beach, the fourth-worst of the 10 Bummer sites. The group points an accusing finger at a “high amount of nearby human development” for fifth-worst Erckenbrack Park’s feces-fest, and blames “urban runoff” for contamination at 10th-worst Gull Park beach.
Where do Foster City officials lay the blame for their Beach Bummer dominance? On Canada’s namesake waterfowl, a notoriously prodigious defecator. “To mitigate the issue, the City is in the process of developing a Canada Goose Population Management Plan,” the city said in a statement.
Foster City has over the years hazed the birds using dogs, strobe lights and fencing, and has even meddled with their eggs, all with “mixed results,” the city said. Last year, a group of outraged goose-loving residents protested a city plan to terminate some geese. Now, an environmental study related to the Goose Plan has temporarily halted goose-hazing and other deterrents other than fencing, the city said.
Back on the Pacific Coast, Pillar Point Harbor in Half Moon Bay has a related problem: “The harbor is dotted with storm drain outfalls that discharge polluted water, which does not get flushed away from the beach by ocean currents or waves due to the harbor’s seawalls,” the report said.
Just up the coast in Pacifica, Keaton Mayo, a 17-year-old local surfer just getting out of the ocean near where San Pedro Creek flows in, said he was well aware of the stream’s role in delivering poop into his slice of wavy paradise. Occasionally, he gets sick after surfing when the water looks brown, he said, particularly in the spring. “It’s just bacteria in the water,” he said. “It makes you ill. Today it looks like the water’s really clear. The creek’s not flowing very much, so it kind of makes sense.”
Father and daughter Loren Peters, 74, and Jessica Belding, 47, have been coming to Linda Mar nearly every week from Sacramento for 28 years to surf together. They know about the creek’s microbial cargo, but neither has suffered any maladies from it, they said. “I’m a registered nurse, so I’m aware of things like that,” Belding said. “We try not to swallow too much water.”
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