State Summary: California

Ranked 20th in Beachwater Quality (out of 30 states)
8% of samples exceeded national standards for designated beach areas in 2012

Protecting swimmers from bacteria, viruses, and other contaminants in beachwater requires leadership. Federal officials must help clean up polluted stormwater runoff—the most commonly identified cause of beach closings and swimming advisories—by developing national rules that require pollution sources to prevent stormwater where it starts by retaining it on-site.

The Environmental Protection Agency must also set beachwater quality standards protective of human health and provide states with the support they need to monitor beach pollution and notify the public when pollution levels are high.

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California 2012 Beachwater Quality Summary

Reported Sources of Beachwater Contamination
(number of closing/advisory days)

  • 5,056 (92%) unknown contamination sources
  • 250 (5%) sewage spills/leaks
  • 209 (4%) stormwater runoff

California has more than 430 beaches along more than 700 miles of coastline on the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay. Historically, the California Department of Health Services administered the BEACH Act grant. Starting in 2012, the California State Water Resources Control Board provided $1 million in funding and began administering the state's beach monitoring program. It also administers the BEACH Act grant.

What Are the Water Quality Challenges and Improvements in California?

Curbing Pollution from Dry-Weather Runoff

In urban areas during dry weather, runoff can occur as a result of landscape irrigation, draining of swimming pools, car washing, and various commercial activities. Along the coast of California, where summers are dry, dry-weather runoff is the most common cause of advisories issued due to elevated bacteria levels. For some parts of Santa Monica Bay, sending dry-weather runoff to sewage treatment plants has improved beachwater quality. In this densely populated area, more than 20 low-flow diversion facilities have been constructed to route dry-weather runoff through sanitary sewage treatment after trash and debris have been screened out. These plants are not able to treat the huge volume of runoff that is generated during storms, but they do have the capacity to treat the relatively smaller volume of dry-weather runoff. Due to these diversion projects and other efforts, water quality has improved at the Santa Monica Canyon monitoring station at Santa Monica State Beach, though challenges remain. At this station, 37% of samples taken from 2006 to 2009 exceeded state standards, but exceedances dropped to 23% in 2010, 22% in 2011, and 10% in 2012.

In 2012, Los Angeles completed the last phase of a $40 million-plus dry-weather runoff diversion project that diverts eight storm drains along the Pacific Coast Highway into a sanitary sewer system and to the Hyperion Treatment Plant.

Same-Day Notification Studies

Currently approved methods for determining levels of fecal indicator bacteria in beachwater depend on growth of bacteria colonies in cultures that take 18 to 96 hours to produce results. Because of this delay, swimmers generally do not know until the at least the next day if the water they swam in was contaminated. The delay also means that beaches may remain closed or posted after water quality has improved.

Fortunately, new technologies that can provide same-day beachwater quality results are now available. During the summer of 2010, a rapid bacterial measurement demonstration project was conducted at nine locations at Huntington State Beach, Newport Beach, and Doheny State Beach, all in Orange County. This demonstration project used quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR), a method that targets genetic sequences found in enterococcus bacteria, allowing public health officials to issue the nation's first-ever same-day warnings for poor beachwater quality by noon on the day water samples were collected.

The city of Los Angeles undertook a similar project at several Los Angeles County beaches in the summer of 2011. This study was a cooperative effort among the city's Environmental Monitoring Division, the county's Department of Public Health and Department of Public Works, and the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project (SCCWRP). Eight sampling stations were included in the project: Inner Cabrillo Beach, Surfrider Beach, Topanga State Beach, Santa Monica Canyon at Santa Monica State Beach, Mothers' Beach, the Ballona Creek outfall at Dockweiler State Beach, Redondo Pier at Redondo Beach, and the Los Angeles River estuary boat launch just north of the Queensway Bridge (this location is not a beach). After reviewing the data from this effort, which showed some disagreement between qPCR results and culture-based results, the project team decided that additional studies needed to be conducted before qPCR results could be used as the basis for same-day water quality notifications at Los Angeles County beaches. Additional studies were completed during the summer of 2012 to help determine the reason for the discrepancies; results have not yet been released.

Bacterial Pollution Reductions Required in Long Beach

In March 2012, total maximum daily loads (TMDLs)—which are cleanup blueprints for specified waters—were established for bacteria at beaches in Long Beach and in the Los Angeles River estuary, which meets the ocean in Long Beach. These cleanups will reduce fecal contamination of beaches in Long Beach, protecting the health of tens of thousands of beachgoers each year. Once they are completed, it is expected that the average number of days during the swimming season that beachwater exceeds fecal indicator bacteria standards will be reduced to zero. In 2012, samples taken at beaches in Long Beach exceeded the single-sample standard for enterococcus between 6% and 24% of the time.

Predictive Modeling

Researchers at Stanford University and the environmental group Heal the Bay are currently developing statistical models that will predict beachwater quality. Starting with test models for 25 of California's most polluted beaches, the models will utilize the history of fecal indicator bacteria densities and oceanic and atmospheric data such as water temperature, current direction, and wind speed at each beach. At the sites where models provide an adequate assessment of water quality, swimmers will be notified of the beach's water quality status more rapidly than they would if traditional techniques for measuring fecal bacteria were used. The models will also help to assess pollution trends and will identify the environmental variables with the greatest influence on bacteria concentrations. Researchers are now halfway through this two-year project, and the efficacy of the models to predict water quality will be evaluated this summer and fall.

Trash Pollution

Although not monitored as part of the BEACH Act, trash and debris can heavily affect California beaches. Waste litters the landscape, and much of it ends up in our oceans where it kills marine life, poses navigational hazards, and impacts local economies and human health. Marine debris includes a range of manmade waste, the vast majority of marine debris is plastic. NRDC is also working to advance extended producer responsibility legislation that would help to reduce plastic pollution at its source by incentivizing the design of less plastic packaging or more recyclable plastic packaging, improving recycling infrastructure throughout the state, and generating support for activities that prevent plastic waste from polluting our oceans and beaches. NRDC is also working with a number of state agencies to support their marine litter control work.

The California State Water Resources Control Board is developing amendments to statewide water quality control plans (Trash Amendments) to reduce trash pollution at California beaches. Currently, they are meeting with stakeholders and preparing a draft staff report and a Substitute Environmental Document (SED) for the Trash Amendments. The draft staff report and SED will be released for public review and comment this summer. This policy would build upon experience with the trash clean up plans established in Los Angeles, and it would identify trash as a separate pollutant to be controlled statewide. In its current Strategic Plan, the California Ocean Protection Council (OPC) has prioritized activities to reduce the source of marine debris, especially plastic waste. OPC and the Water Board are also beginning to coordinate with CalRecycle to enhance waste management and recycling activities that play an important part in controlling marine litter.

What Does Beachwater Monitoring Show?1

In 2012, California reported 715 coastal beaches and beach segments, of which 66 (9%) were assigned a monitoring frequency of more than once a week, 331 (46%) once a week, 66 (9%) every other week, 26 (4%) once a month, and 15 (2%) less than once a month; 211 (30%) were not assigned a monitoring frequency. NRDC considered a sample on a given day at a given beach station to be an exeedance if any one of California's bacterial standards was exceeded. (Please note that even if all bacterial standards were exceeded for a sample taken on a given day at a given station, NRDC counted that as one exceedance. For example, if a sample exceeded the enterococcus, E. Coli, and total coliform standards for a sample taken on a given day, NRDC counted that as one exceedance, not three Also note that in determining California's national beachwater quality ranking, NRDC analyzed results based on the single-sample maximum BEACH Act standard of 104 cfu/100 ml enterococcus.)

In 2012, 10% of all reported beachwater monitoring samples exceeded the state's daily maximum bacterial standards. The beaches with the highest percent exceedance rates of the daily maximum standards in 2012 were Avalon Beach 50 feet west of the Green Pleasure Pier in Los Angeles County (83%), Poche County Beach in Orange County (67%), Aquatic Park (63%) and Pillar Point-Capistrano (52%) in San Mateo County, and Avalon Beach east of the Casino Arch at the steps in Los Angeles County (50%). Contra Costa County had the highest exceedance rate of the daily maximum standards in 2012 (17%), followed by San Mateo (16%), Los Angeles (16%), San Francisco (15%), Humboldt (12%), Santa Cruz (11%), Alameda (10%), Orange (9%), Monterey (8%), San Luis Obispo (7%), Santa Barbara (7%), San Diego (4%), Ventura (4%), Marin (3%), Mendocino (2%), and Sonoma (2%). NRDC considers all reported samples individually (without averaging) when calculating the percent exceedance rates in this analysis. This includes duplicate samples and samples taken outside the official beach season, if any.

California Percent of Samples Exceeding the State's Daily Maximum Bacterial Standard for 198 Beaches Reported 2008-2012*

    * Please note that only samples from a common set of beaches monitored each year from 2008-2012 are included in the bar chart.

    What Are California's Sampling Practices?

    Beachwater quality monitoring in California occurs from no later than April 1 until October 31, with most beaches in Southern California and in Santa Cruz, San Mateo, and San Francisco Counties monitored year-round. Statewide, more than 27,000 samples were collected in 2012.

    Some counties in California conduct beachwater quality monitoring and issue advisories year-round; these include Alameda, Contra Costa, Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego, San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Ventura, San Luis Obispo and Ventura. Therefore, the data provided in NRDC's analysis for these counties reflects wet weather and winter monitoring at numerous sites affected by urban runoff, which results in additional exceedances and longer postings when compared with most other jurisdictions. Year-round monitoring and posting is a good environmental and public-health practice that increases the level of protection to those who visit beaches where body-contact recreational water use occurs throughout the year.

    Individual counties determine sampling locations, but sampling depth and minimum sampling frequency are determined by state law. Most counties sample at more locations and often more frequently than required by state law. Samples are taken in ankle-deep water. Monitoring locations in California are selected on the basis of the number of visitors, the location of storm drains, discharge permit requirements to sample at particular places, and legislative requirements (for instance, legislation requires the monitoring of all beaches with a flowing storm drain and at least 50,000 visitors annually). The vast majority of beach day use in California occurs at monitored beaches.

    Samples are usually collected in areas where possible contamination is most likely. In Los Angeles County, for example, sampling points are located where creeks or storm drains enter the surf zone; these are usually permanently posted as being under advisory. Other counties may permanently post outfalls and sample 25 yards up or down the coast from the outfall to predict further impacts to beach bathing areas.

    Immediate resampling is often conducted after a bacteria advisory (a posting) is issued in order to lift the posting as soon as possible. States that monitor more frequently after an exceedance is found will tend to have higher percent exceedance rates and lower total closing/advisory days than they would if their sampling frequency did not increase after an exceedance was found.

    How Many Beach Closings and Advisories Were Issued in 2012?2

    Total closing/advisory days for 1,234 events lasting six consecutive weeks or less decreased 5% to 5,515 days in 2012 from 5,794 days in 2011. For prior years, there were 5,756 days in 2010, 2,904 days in 2009, and 4,133 days in 2008. In addition, there were 28 extended events (1,231 days total) and 5 permanent events (1,069 days total) in 2012. Extended events are those in effect more than six weeks but not more than 13 consecutive weeks; permanent events are in effect for more than 13 consecutive weeks. For the 1,234 events lasting six consecutive weeks or less, 92% (5,056) of closing/advisory days were due to monitoring that revealed elevated bacteria levels, 4% (209) were preemptive due to heavy rainfall, and 5% (250) were preemptive due to known sewage spills or leaks. This analysis includes all reported county-wide rain advisory events. However, the county-wide rain advisories are not represented in the beach-specific California 2012 Monitoring Results and Closings/Advisory Days table because they are reported only at the county level.

    How Does California Determine When to Warn Visitors About Swimming?

    Local health agencies are responsible for issuing beachwater quality advisories and closures. There are four types of beachwater quality warnings issued: postings, rain advisories, permanent postings, and closings. Postings that warn swimmers about the potential for illness are issued when a water sample fails to meet bacterial standards. Rain advisories warn people to avoid swimming in ocean waters during a rain event and for three days after rainfall ceases. Permanent postings are made at sites where historic data show that the beachwater generally contains elevated bacteria levels. Beach closings are generally issued due to sewage spills or other serious health hazards, but local health officials may also decide to close a beach when more than one standard is exceeded or when exceedances are far in excess of the standards. This is rare, however, and closings generally are issued only when it is suspected that sewage is affecting a beach. Beachgoers can access information about water quality on the California State Water Board's "Is It Safe to Swim?" website.

    California employs the following bacterial standards:

    • For total coliform, the single-sample standard is 1,000 cfu/100 ml if the ratio of fecal/total coliform bacteria exceeds 0.1. Otherwise, the single-sample standard for total coliform is 10,000 cfu/100 ml. The total coliform geometric mean standard is 1,000 cfu/100 ml, calculated from at least five equally spaced samples collected in a 30-day period.
    • For fecal coliform, the single-sample standard is 400 cfu/100 ml and the standard for the geometric mean of at least five evenly spaced samples collected in a 30-day period is 200 cfu/100 ml. In some jurisdictions, E. Coli is used as a surrogate for fecal coliform; the standard is the same as for fecal coliform.
    • For enterococcus, the single-sample standard is 104 cfu/100 ml and the standard for the geometric mean of at least five equally spaced samples collected in a 30-day period is 35 cfu/100 ml.

    Almost all counties monitor for all three organisms (total coliform, fecal coliform, and enterococcus). Some beach management entities, including Los Angeles and Orange Counties and the city of Long Beach, post a beach when the single-sample standard of any one of these three indicators is exceeded. In Marin County, beaches are posted if either the enterococcus or fecal coliform standard is exceeded, but not when only the total coliform standard is exceeded.

    In San Francisco County, the single-sample standard for total coliform is 10,000 cfu/100 ml regardless of the ratio of fecal coliform to total coliform, and some beaches require confirmation, either from elevated results at nearby sites, from exceedances of more than one standard, or from resampling, before a beach is posted. Geometric mean standards are sometimes used to keep a beach posted after the single-sample maximum has been exceeded but rarely trigger a posting by themselves. If geometric mean standards are exceeded, the state recommends that additional sanitary surveys, more frequent sampling, and additional related evaluations be conducted. Unless adjacent sampling stations exceed water quality standards, notifications are issued for the portion of the beach that extends 50 yards in either direction of the sampling location where an exceedance is found. After a posting is issued, samples must meet standards for two days before the beach can be reopened.

    Since 2003, San Diego County has used a predictive model to trigger beach closings at three south county beaches near the outlet of the Tijuana River. These beaches are Imperial Beach, Coronado Beach, and Silver Strand State Beach. The model assesses the need for closures based on real-time information about ocean currents and other parameters. Use of the model allows the San Diego County Department of Environmental Health to make more accurate and timely notifications to protect the health of beachgoers.

    In addition to advisories triggered by indicator exceedances, three-day-long preemptive rain advisories are automatically issued in five counties (Los Angeles, Monterey, Orange, San Diego, and Santa Cruz) when rainfall exceeds predetermined levels, regardless of bacterial monitoring. These general advisories affect all beaches in the county. As a general rule, the Los Angeles County Recreational Waters Program issues a rain advisory when there is 0.1 inch or more of rainfall at the University of Southern California rain gauge, but this varies depending on factors such as how long it has been since the last rainfall, how sporadic the rainfall is, and where it is falling. According to the program, much of the watershed that feeds storm drain flow is in the hills and mountains, where rainfall levels differ from those at the rain gauge. Orange County issues preemptive countywide rain advisories that warn of elevated bacteria levels in the ocean for a period of at least 72 hours after rain events of 0.2 inch or more. San Diego County issues preemptive rain advisories for a period of up to 72 hours after a rain event of 0.2 inch or more.

    Preemptive advisories are also issued for reasons other than rain, such as the presence of excessive debris. Finally, preemptive closings are issued when there is a known sewage spill or when sewage is suspected of affecting a beach. Closings are issued immediately upon notification by the agency responsible for the spill.

    California 2012 Monitoring Results and Closing/Advisory Days3

    Assigned Monitoring Frequency
    Total Samples
    % of samples exceeding
    state standards
    Closing or Advisory days
    Data and state-specific information for this summary were collected from U.S. EPA, direct conversations with beach managers in the state, state grant reports to U.S. EPA for BEACH Act funding, and the state water quality website. The information in this state summary reflects current data as of June 7, 2013.
      NOTE: Data and state-specific information for this summary were collected from U.S. EPA, direct conversations with beach managers in the state, state grant reports to U.S. EPA for BEACH Act funding, and the state water quality website. The information in this state summary reflects current data as of June 7, 2013.
    1. If the 2012 percent exceedance values in this summary don't match, why not? The value at the top of the page reflects the proportion of samples exceeding the national single-sample maximum standard for designated beach areas. The values in the "What Does Beach Monitoring Show?" section reflect the proportion of samples exceeding the state standard, which in some states is more or less stringent than the national designated beach standard. Additionally, only samples from a common set of beaches monitored each year from 2008-2012 are included in the bar chart. Because some beaches were not monitored in each of those years, the percent exceedance for this subset of beaches may not have the same value as the percent exceedance for all of the beaches monitored in 2012.
    2. Year-to-year changes in closing/advisory days should not necessarily be interpreted as an indication of the level of bacterial contamination. In some states and localities, the number of beaches and/or beach monitoring frequency may not be consistent from one year to the next, and beaches may be closed or under a swimming advisory for reasons other than known or suspected bacterial contamination. Other reasons include, but are not limited to, chemical/oil spills, medical waste washing up on shore, dangerous currents, lack of lifeguards, etc. In addition, because NRDC's totals of closing/advisory events focus on those events lasting six consecutive weeks or less, those tallies do not account for longer-duration closings or advisories. For trends in water quality, please refer to NRDC's year-to-year comparison of percent exceedance rates of state water quality standards.
    3. Reported closing or advisory days are for events lasting six consecutive weeks or less. Days in parentheses are for events lasting more than six consecutive weeks.


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