Ten North County beaches make honor roll on annual beach report card

Toby Dussault, 17, surfs at Seaside Reef at Cardiff State Beach on June 30.
Toby Dussault, 17, surfs at Seaside Reef at Cardiff State Beach on June 30. Heal the Bay’s Beach Report Card came out and the area received all As. An area just north of Seaside, near the Chart House restaurant made the Honor Roll with all A+.
(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The 30th annual report aims to make water quality transparent to beachgoers


Ten San Diego beaches scored perfect marks, while one Mission Bay location failed to make the grade, on the 30th annual “Beach Report Card” by the nonprofit Heal the Bay.

The annual report assigns letter grades to beaches, based on bacteria levels found in water samples throughout the year. Those grades represent an effort to translate scientific test results into readily understandable information for beachgoers.

“California’s beaches are iconic and essential to our economy here in California,” said Shelley Luce, president and CEO of Heal the Bay. “But, unfortunately, they are not always clean and not always safe.”

Over the past 30 years, she said, the beach report card has “elevated awareness” among the public about the potential health risks of ocean water at different times of the year and in different weather. The report ranks beach water conditions in winter dry weather, summer dry weather, and wet weather. Bacteria levels typically spike during and after storms, when rainfall washes contaminants down creeks and storm drains into the surf zone off the coast.

This year, the report also discussed how the COVID-19 pandemic may affect beach access and water quality.

In California this year, 92 percent of beaches scored A or B grades during summer dry weather, and 91 percent earned those grades in winter dry weather. Just 65 percent, however, got high marks in wet weather conditions.

San Diego County beaches scored slightly lower for dry conditions, with 90 percent of beaches getting A or B grades in summer and 88 percent scoring high grades in winter dry weather. However, the county fared better than the statewide average in wet weather, when 82 percent of San Diego County beaches still earned A’s or B’s.

There were disparities within the county, as well, as a number of North County beaches claimed top marks, while southern beaches showed more problems with pollution.

The annual report card “honor roll” highlights sites that scored “A+” for all seasons and weather conditions. This year, 10 North County beaches made the list, including Cardiff State Beach, at Charthouse parking lot and at Las Olas; Carlsbad, at Cerezo Drive, Encina Creek, Palomar Airport Road, Poinsettia Lane and Ponto Drive; Encinitas, San Elijo State Park at the north end; Oceanside, St. Malo Beach; and Solana Beach, Tide Beach Park at Solana Vista Drive.

That total is slightly down from last year, when San Diego had the most high-ranking beaches of any county in the state, with 12 sites on the honor roll. This year, the top spot went to Orange County, where 20 beaches scored A+ for all seasons and weather conditions.

California's dirtiest beaches; San Diego County's best beaches

One San Diego Beach - Vacation Isle Cove in Mission Bay - made the “Bummer List” of the worst 10 sites for summer water quality, scoring an F grade for the season. That beach, the report card stated, is an enclosed site within Mission Bay that receives runoff from surrounding businesses and neighborhoods even in dry weather. Those pollutants aren’t easily washed away from the beach, which is located in a deep cove. Vacation Isle had previously landed on the “Bummer list” in 2009, the report stated.

Enclosed beaches, often in marinas or harbors, have obstructions such as land masses or jetties that block the site from wave action, resulting in generally worse water quality, the report stated.

Other San Diego County beaches earned F’s in wet weather conditions, including parts of the Tijuana Slough, which is often affected by sewage runoff from Mexico; parts of Imperial Beach; Torrey Pines Los Penasquitos Lagoon outlet; Buccaneer Beach at Loma Alta Creek in Oceanside; La Jolla Cove; and Border Field State Park.

The grades are based on levels of three fecal indicator bacteria: total coliform, fecal coliform, and Enterococcus species. These bacteria indicate the presence of harmful pathogens in the water that can cause skin, respiratory or gastrointestinal infections in people who are exposed to them. Heal the Bay collects routine water sampling data from county and state health agencies, tribal agencies, sanitation departments and dischargers along the West Coast, in order to analyze the bacteria counts, according to the report.

Over the three decades that the organization has prepared the annual report, dry weather water quality has improved, Luce said, while wet weather samples have shown higher bacteria levels.

“Water quality grades in dry weather are significantly better,” she said. “Our wet weather grades, however, show a significant decline. Water quality in the surf zone is significantly worse than when we first started reporting them.”

However, she noted, those declines correspond with a change in water sampling techniques, with agencies now required to test water immediately next to the outfall, where contaminants are more concentrated, instead of farther into the surf zone, where they may be more diluted.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically changed beach access, with many coastal areas partially or completely closed for weeks on end, it’s not likely to present a health risk to swimmers, the report authors said.

“We do not know how long the virus survives in sewage, or in the ocean,” said Luke Ginger, water quality scientist with Heal the Bay, noting that researchers have found the virus in sewage samples.

However, he said that by the time it’s discharged to the sea, sewage flows are likely so diluted that they pose little risk of COVID-19 transmission.

“Experts have said that the chance of transmission in the ocean is very low,” he said. “The virus mostly spreads through person-to-person contact.”

To be safe, however, he said swimmers should avoid shallow, enclosed beaches with poor water circulation, swim at least 100 yards away from flowing storm drains, wait three days after a rain to enter the ocean, and wear masks and practice social distancing on the beach.

The pandemic, which has upended life as usual around the world, has likewise affected activity on California’s cherished coastline, the authors said. Beach closures enacted during the quarantine period eliminated public access to the resource, Luce said. And the partial reopenings, in which many beaches were open, but their parking lots and bathrooms were closed, left beaches available mostly to those within walking distance from the shore.

“That limited access to people who don’t already live close to the coast,” she said. “That was a real equity problem.”

-- Deborah Sullivan Brennan is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune