California has more than 400 beaches along more than 500 miles of coastline on the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay. In 2011 and continuing into 2012, the California Department of Health Services administered the BEACH Act grant. Starting in October 2012, the California State Water Resources Control Board will provide funding for the state contribution to the state's beach monitoring program and will administer the BEACH Act grant.
Curbing Pollution in Dry Weather Runoff
In urban areas during dry weather, runoff can occur as a result of landscape irrigation, the 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 the 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. While the sanitary sewage treatment plants that serve this area are not able to treat the huge volume of runoff that is generated during storms, they do have the capacity to treat the relatively small 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 and 22% in 2011.
Same-Day Notification Studies in California
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 between sample collection and results, 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 success of the Orange County demonstration project prompted the city of Los Angeles to undertake 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). Samples were analyzed using a currently approved culture method as well as the qPCR method in order to determine whether the two methods produced similar results, as they had in Orange County.
The lab was able to provide qPCR sample results to the county health department by noon on the same day samples were collected. However, results from qPCR and culture methods were not as well correlated as they had been in Orange County, with 16% of qPCR results indicating that water quality standards had been exceeded when the culture method indicated they had not (false positives). Conversely, 8% of qPCR results indicated there had not been an exceedance when the culture method indicated there had (false negatives). At some locations, the qPCR test results were occasionally unreliable because of inhibiting constituents in the water that interfered with the analysis. Because of inhibition experienced at the Inner Cabrillo Beach sampling location, this site was dropped from the study partway through the summer.
After reviewing the data from the 2011 Los Angeles County effort, the project team decided that additional studies need to be conducted before qPCR results can be used as the basis for same-day water quality notifications at Los Angeles County beaches. In particular, the reason for the disagreement between the qPCR and culture-based results needs to be better understood. More work should also be done to resolve the occasional problem of compounds in the water samples interfering with the qPCR assay. These additional studies are planned for the summer of 2012. If successful, they will be followed by a demonstration project in the summer of 2013 involving same-day notification to Los Angeles County beachgoers.
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 TMDLs will reduce fecal contamination of beaches in Long Beach, protecting the health of tens of thousands of beachgoers each year. Once implemented, 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. Those actions are critical because in 2011, more than 20% of samples taken at beaches in Long Beach exceeded the single-sample standard for enterococcus.
Beach Data Management in California
As of the 2011 beach season, the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project (SCCWRP) has taken over data management of California's beachwater monitoring and notification programs from the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB). Whereas the coastal counties used to electronically submit data to the state system, they now electronically submit data to SCCWRP's system. The transition initially resulted in inconsistencies between the key identifiers used for beaches and monitoring stations. This was partly due to incompatibilities between the two electronic reporting systems, but the transition also revealed incorrect beach identifiers and names that had been in the system historically. NRDC worked closely with SCCWRP to reconcile the identifiers and used the opportunity to more effectively identify managed beaches in California. Although some beach identifiers have not yet been fully reconciled (and SCCWRP, EPA, and NRDC continue to address those), NRDC's California summary for 2011 includes all of the beaches for which data have been submitted to EPA. This Herculean effort will make beachwater quality, as well as notification tracking and reporting, more reliable for California's coastal beaches from this point forward.
What Does Beachwater Monitoring Show?
In 2011, California reported 707 coastal beaches and beach segments. Of these, 33 (5%) were assigned a daily monitoring frequency, 38 (5%) a frequency of more than once a week, 464 (66%) once a week, 12 (2%) once a month, and 137 (19%) less than once a month. Two (<1%) were not assigned a monitoring frequency, and there was no monitoring information for 21 (3%) beaches. NRDC considered a sample on a given day at a given beach station to be an exceedance if any of California's bacterial standards was exceeded. Please note that even if all bacterial standards were exceeded on a given day at a given station, NRDC counted that as one exceedance. As with all states, when determining California's national beachwater quality ranking, NRDC analyzed results based on the national single-sample maximum standard for designated beach areas of 104 cfu/100 ml enterococcus.
In 2011, 10% of all reported beach monitoring samples exceeded the state's daily maximum bacterial standards of 104 colonies enterococcus/100 ml, 400 colonies fecal coliform/100 ml, and/or 10,000 colonies total coliform/100 ml. Fifty-four beaches and beach segments in California exceeded the standards more than 20% of the time. The beaches with the highest percent exceedance rates of the state standard in 2011 were Avalon Beach 50 feet west of the Green Pleasure Pier (72%) and Avalon Beach 100 feet west of the Green Pleasure Pier (63%) in Los Angeles County; Imperial Beach Municipal Beach, Cortez Avenue in San Diego County (59%); Poche County Beach (58%) and Doheny State Beach surf zone at outfall (57%) in Orange County; and Surfrider Beach, Malibu, at the breach or last known breach (55%) in Los Angeles County. Beaches in Contra Costa County had the highest exceedance rate of the state standard in 2011 (19%), followed by Los Angeles (18%), Santa Barbara (17%), Humboldt (15%), Monterey (13%), San Francisco (11%), San Mateo (10%), Santa Cruz (10%), Orange (8%), San Luis Obispo (7%), Alameda (6%), San Diego (6%), Marin (6%), Ventura (3%), Sonoma (3%), and Mendocino (3%) counties. No samples were collected at beaches in Del Norte County. 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.
* Please note that only samples from a common set of beaches monitored each year from 2007-2011 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.
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 on San Francisco Bay). Monitored beaches account for the vast majority of beach day use in California.
Samples are usually collected in the most likely areas of possible contamination. 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. Most 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 schedule did not increase after an exceedance was found.
How Many Beach Closings and Advisories Were Issued in 2011?
Total closing/advisory days for 1,228 events lasting six consecutive weeks or less increased 1% to 5,794 days in 2011 from 5,756 days in 2010. For prior years, there were 2,904 days in 2009, 4,133 days in 2008, 4,736 days in 2007, 4,644 days in 2006, and 5,199 days in 2005. In addition, there were 11 extended events (586 days total) and 6 permanent events (711 days total) in 2011. 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 1,228 events lasting six consecutive weeks or less, 94% (5,455) of closing/advisory days in 2011 were due to monitoring that revealed elevated bacteria levels, 2% (120) were preemptive (i.e., without waiting for monitoring results) due to heavy rainfall, and 4% (219) were preemptive due to known sewage spills/leaks.
This analysis and the California table of monitoring results and closing and advisory days do not include days in county-wide rain advisory events. This includes 30 preemptive rain advisory days in Los Angeles County, excluding Long Beach (7 events), 50 in Monterey County (7 events), 64 in Orange County (12 events), 56 in San Diego County (13 events), and 6 in Ventura County (2 events). There were also at least 18 days of rain advisories at beaches in Long Beach.
NRDC learned just prior to publication of the report that Los Angeles County's 2011 closing and advisory days were underreported. Eighteen of 69 beaches managed by the county were scrutinized and 25 missing closing and advisory days at four beaches were discovered. These days are included in the analysis in this summary and in the California table, but any additional errors in the remaining 51 beaches remain uncorrected.
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, closings, rain advisories, and permanent postings. 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 are generally issued only when it is suspected that sewage is impacting a beach.
California employs a variety of 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 what the fecal coliform to total coliform ratio is, and some beaches require confirmation, either from elevated results at nearby sites, from more than one standard being exceeded, 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 of water quality standards 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 in addition to 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. At 25 of California's other beaches, researchers at Stanford University and Heal the Bay are developing statistical beachwater quality models that will make predictions of water quality based on the history of fecal indicator bacteria densities and oceanic and atmospheric data such as water temperature, current direction, and wind speed at each of the individual beaches. At the beaches whose models provide an adequate assessment of water quality, swimmers will be notified of the beach's water quality status more rapidly than they would be 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.
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 counties) when rainfall exceeds predetermined levels, regardless of whether bacterial monitoring samples have been collected and analyzed. 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 agency, much of the watershed that feeds storm drain flow is in the hills and mountains, which have rainfall levels different from those at the rain gauge. Orange County issues preemptive countywide rain advisories, warning 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 excessive debris on a beach. Finally, preemptive closings are issued when there is a known sewage spill or when sewage is suspected of impacting a beach. Closings are issued immediately upon notification by the agency responsible for the spill.
California 2011 Monitoring Results and Notice and Advisory Days
||Assigned Monitoring Frequency
||% of samples exceeding state standards
||Closing or Advisory days