Your Beach Ain't Safe -- The Truth Behind California's Sands and Waters

Everyone knows that beach pollution exists. Everyone agrees that it is bad. But does it stop anyone from going to the beach? When questioned as to whether or not they checked beach grades before going, beachgoers at Seacliff and Rio Del Mar in Santa Cruz County uniformly responded with an unashamed “no.”

BEACH BLIGHT: Rio Del Mar beach, where storm drainage can flow into to the ocean from populated areas, generally poses a higher pollution threat to beach goers than more remote locations. 

Which beaches are safe and how does one find out? In addition to visiting sites such as and, there are some signs to look for when assessing the cleanliness of your beach’s water. First, look around. If there are boats everywhere then the beach may not be ideal for swimming. Perhaps a more significant indicator is the presence of storm drains. Beaches with sewage and storm overflow drains generally have much more pollution and routinely receive poor beach grades.

Heal The Bay is a volunteer organization that, among other things, monitors water pollution of Bay Area beaches, assigning each beach a weekly grade. For example, Northern Santa Cruz County destinations such as Waddell Beach score predominantly A’s while a more popular beach such as Capitola earns a mixture of C’s and F’s.

Many people who go to beaches generally judge a beach’s cleanliness on its sand and surrounding areas,  as opposed to what is in the water.

“The most negative thing that I have noticed recently, since it’s summer and there are people coming from out of town, is the amount of people that don’t clean up after their dogs,” said Del Mar beach resident Robin. “My friends and I that walk with our dogs frequently will walk down the beach collecting trash and dog poop.”  

Since the majority of people who go the beach do not actually go in the water, the quality of the sand is more important to the average person. In order to amend such problems many beach lovers organize beach cleanup days as community events. Save Our Shores is a Santa Cruz organization that schedules frequent beach cleanup days. Every week during the summer provides multiple opportunities to join a concentrated effort at a beach cleanup in the Bay Area. Specifically, in Monterey County there is a monthly cleanup on the second Saturday of the month, in Santa Cruz County it is on the third.

For many people, health seems to have taken a back seat to convenience.  Is there really that much of a health concern, though? The answer is that it depends on the specific pollutants at a given beach. Watch out for storm drains and sewage pipes, especially during the rainy months. Heavy rain carries sewage and waste into the ocean, dumping many potentially harmful microorganisms and bacteria into the water.  

Dilution is the Solution

In massive bodies of water such as the Pacific Ocean or the Monterey Bay, waters are not so easily tainted at a scale of concern to swimmers because of the sheer amount of water they contain. Swimming in rivers, lakes, and ponds with lots of pollutants flowing into them however, can be a serious health concern. Most San Francisco Bay beaches, despite their muddy and unclean reputation, are still safe to swim in. Heal the Bay advises beachgoers to check a beach’s report card before making the trip. Beaches always have lower grades during the winter months due to rainfall, but that does not mean that all beaches are unclean.

Another question to ask when assessing a beach for safety:  Are there any freshwater streams running into the ocean?  Such streams serve as significant sources of storm drainage, so beaches near places laden with agriculture will often receive agricultural runoff. People at beaches usually view such runoffs as nice little streams and puddles for the little ones to play in.  At Rio Del Mar Beach, south of Sea Cliff, families frolicked happily in warm waters prone to health dangers, responding to queries that they were unaware of such concerns.

Beach and ocean pollution is still a very serious environmental concern but in most cases, especially in the Bay Area, most ocean waters are safe for swimming. Notable exceptions include Santa Cruz’s Cowell Beach,  notorious for poor beach grades and closures due to pollution.

Parents whose children are active in the Santa Cruz junior lifeguard program were worried about the safety of sending their kids to Cowell beach for meetings.

“I’ve read in the San Jose Mercury News about hypodermic needles being found on Cowell beach and wonder if I should be sending my kids there,” said mother GiGi Harvey.

The primary cause of beach pollution comes from an overflow of untreated human waste into the ocean. At certain beaches, human waste is illegally channeled directly into the ocean. The city of Santa Cruz is currently working to institute strict laws concerning drainage and dumping at the waterfront.

After a recent spike in awareness of Cowell’s pollution levels, beachgoers notice a considerable difference in the beach’s cleanliness.

“We have been going to Cowell every day for about 15 days and it has been very clean.” Said another Junior lifeguard parent.

Although pollution persists, recent efforts to improve beach cleanliness have had an effect on civilian happiness. So next time you pay a visit to the beach, you might want to check online or with an expert beforehand.

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