SM BAY — Water quality at the Santa Monica Pier beach has dropped significantly in the last two years despite millions spent on a new storm drain and netting to keep pigeons from pooping in the water, leaving city officials and scientists baffled as to the source of the sour grade on Heal the Bay’s End of Summer Beach Report Card.

As thousands flock to Santa Monica beaches this weekend to celebrate Labor Day they’ll want to take a close look at the report card, which was released Thursday, to see where it’s safe to swim. They’ll have plenty of options as 96 percent of 450 beaches surveyed along the California coast earned A or B grades, the same percentage as in last year’s report.

City officials are trying to determine what is causing bacteria levels in the waters off the Santa Monica Pier to rise. (File photo)

City officials are trying to determine what is causing bacteria levels in the waters off the Santa Monica Pier to rise. (File photo)

Los Angeles County, the state’s most populous region, marked yet more improvement in its summer beach water quality with some 80 out of 89 beaches getting A or B grades, a 3 percent uptick from last year.

However, there are still some beach bummers, including Surfrider Beach, Dockweiler, Mothers’ Beach, the Malibu Pier, Cabrillo Beach, and the Santa Monica Pier, where harmful bacteria levels — which can cause skin rashes, upper respiratory infections and the dreaded diarrhea — exceeded allowable limits 68 times between April 1 to Aug. 21, the time in which samples were collected and analyzed for the report.

The latest water quality results, which are updated every Friday and posted at http://brc.healthebay.org/, showed the pier had an F grade, while just a short distance north the beach at Wilshire Boulevard and Montana Avenue posted A-plus grades.

“We can’t seem to figure out what has caused the concentration [of bacteria] to go up again this year [at the pier],” said Rick Valte, watershed program manager for City Hall for the last four years. With so many sources for the bacteria — including urban runoff from gutters and fecal matter from animals and humans — “it’s hard to draw any type of conclusion on what causes this,” Valte added.

Out in front 

Santa Monica has been at the forefront of utilizing new techniques and technology to divert urban runoff from entering the Santa Monica Bay, a significant attraction for locals and visitors. The beach and world-famous pier help drive the tourism industry, which contributes millions of dollars annually in tax revenue to pay for public safety, trash collection, after-school programs and other services.

City Hall, with the help of other agencies in the state, created the Santa Monica Urban Runoff Recycling Facility over 12 years ago to collect, treat and reuse 500,000 gallons of runoff per day, or about 4 percent of the city’s daily water use, according to a report released by City Hall.

Furthermore, the City Council approved a law in the 1990s requiring developers to make sure all water flowing from a property is collected and treated before it is released. In 2010 that ordinance was enhanced with the council requiring those who build new projects or make upgrades that increase the square footage to not only capture and treat the water, but to make sure it seeps back into the property’s grounds instead of being released.

There are education initiatives to encourage residents and businesses to use less water and capture any before it is released by using barrels. There is a rebate program in place for those who buy the barrels.

In addition to underground systems that remove debris and divert urban runoff to a sewer system for treatment instead of letting it flow into the bay, city officials are also testing pilot projects to see how more water can be captured to replenish aquifers.

One such project is under construction at Nebraska Avenue and Franklin Street, the old industrial area of the city that has more concrete than green space, leaving little room for water to seep back into the ground naturally. The project, Valte said, involves using existing catch basins and manholes to collect water and let it discharge back into the soil.

All of that would not be possible without funding from a parcel tax, Measure V, approved by residents in 2006.

“Thanks to the residents we have the money to invest in these projects,” Valte said. The trick is finding areas where the soil is right and not hard or dense clay.

Measure V money was used to replace an aging, leaky storm drain underneath the pier back in 2009-10, Valte said, as well as place netting underneath the pier to keep pigeons from roosting after a study showed that their excrement was fouling the water. The new drain helped rid the area of standing water, which is great for birthing bacteria, and resulted in consecutive years of high marks on Heal the Bay’s report card.

“It was like flipping a switch,” said Amanda Griesbach, water quality scientist at Heal the Bay. “It was such a drastic turnaround. Everyone was optimistic. We thought we finally figured it out.”

Not anymore.

Identifying the source  

Valte said crews have been inspecting the pigeon netting and repairing holes. There are also discussions about doing daily monitoring in the mornings to check bacteria levels, finding pools of standing water and eradicating them and hopefully identify the root causes of the poor grades.

There are some theories. Researchers with UCLA were contracted by City Hall to study the pier and their conclusion was that the moisture and lack of sunlight under the pier make for a perfect breading ground for bacteria. Valte said the pier reconstruction project could also be stirring up beds of bacteria deep in the sand.

“That’s just a wild guess,” he said. “I think we have exhausted all the options we have, aside from demolishing the pier or putting some kind of ultraviolet lighting system under the pier. It’s just hard to figure out how to move forward on this.”

Heal the Bay will be working with city officials to try and come up with solutions soon before the winter months come and bring rain. Beach report card grades are typically worse in the winter as more urban runoff overwhelms diversion systems and makes its way to the ocean.

The best thing beachgoers can do is educate themselves. Griesbach recommended checking the water quality reports on Heal the Bay’s website as one does the traffic on their smartphones. Heal the Bay has a water quality app available for free at www.beachreportcard.org. She hopes someone will develop a website that can include parking and traffic data, a surf and water quality report as well as a guide to where to shop or eat near the beach, or “basically a one-stop shop.”

That might not matter if funding at the federal level is cut. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has proposed eliminating nearly $10 million in funding to help states conduct regular water quality monitoring and notifications. That would mean a loss of around $500,000 for California, which is in better shape than most states because it has an independent source of revenue to help supplement federal funds, Griesbach said. She urged people to contact their elected officials and call for the funding to remain intact.

Heal the Bay is encouraged by the Senate Appropriations Committee’s recent drafting of a bill that restores federal beach program funds, but that could change.

Despite the pier’s poor grade, visitors to Santa Monica can still swim at other local beaches that have earned high marks and take comfort in knowing that, at least for now, monitoring will continue.

 

kevinh@smdp.com

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