SM PIER — Water quality near the Santa Monica Pier dropped in 2012, reversing much-celebrated gains from the year before, according to a report released Thursday by local environmental group Heal the Bay.
Santa Monica went from all A’s during dry weather in 2011 to a B-grade in the summer and failing grades in both winter reporting periods, according to Heal the Bay’s Beach Report Card, an annual accounting of water quality on the West Coast.
Other measurement areas in Santa Monica fared better, with the Montana Avenue, Wilshire Boulevard, Strand Street and Ashland Avenue storm drains all reporting top marks during dry weather.
The culprit behind the drop in Santa Monica’s GPA?
The creatures some refer to as “rats with wings” roost underneath the Santa Monica Pier, dropping their waste into the water and bumping up the bacteria counts that Heal the Bay uses to judge water quality.
High concentrations of bacteria can put swimmers, surfers and others who enjoy the beach at risk of illnesses like stomach flue, eye or ear infections, respiratory infections and full-body skin rashes, according to the report.
It’s an issue that Santa Monica officials have faced before, and ultimately solved by installing a large net beneath the pier between 2009 and 2010 to ward off the avian invaders.
That net, made out of high-density polyethylene twine, developed tears that gave the birds an opportunity to slip back into their old spots by the pier.
Heal the Bay discovered the situation when weekly tests near the site began to turn up significantly higher levels of bacteria, said Kirsten James, director of water quality for the nonprofit.
The pier scored a B for water quality during the summer, but between November and March, called the “winter dry” period, the scores began to slip into F territory, causing Heal the Bay officials to ask why.
When they went down to investigate, they noticed tears in the netting, James said.
City officials are already in the process of having the net replaced, and suspect the netting was vandalized.
“The netting doesn’t tear that easily under normal conditions,” said Rick Valte, a principal civil engineer with City Hall.
With that addressed, officials will be able to pinpoint any other potential factors in the precipitous drop in water quality.
Overall, the Santa Monica Bay reported excellent water quality during the summer, with 92 percent of beaches up and down the coast earning A and B-grades, up 6 percent from the last report.
Grades began to drop further north, with Malibu Pier taking a spot on the Beach Bummer’s list, a run-down of the 10 beaches with the worst water quality in California.
Four of those, including Malibu Pier, were from Los Angeles County, down significantly from the 2012 report in which the county claimed seven of the bummers.
That may reflect an improvement in Los Angeles water quality overall. This year, 86 percent of beaches in the county received A or B-grades, besting its five-year average by 16 percent. It fared even better during wet weather, increasing its number of clean beaches by 23 percent from the last year and 24 percent compared to its five-year average.
There’s still work to do. Los Angeles County fell short by as much as 12 percent compared to the statewide average for each of the three time periods measured despite a helping hand from the weather, which pumped 3 inches less water into the Southland last year than the last five.
Less rainfall means less water streaming down dirty streets taking pollution from urban centers into the ocean.
Urban runoff is one of the biggest sources of coastal pollution, James said.
Los Angeles has invested in water quality over the last several years, finishing the final phase of a more than $40 million project to divert dirty water that runs off of urban roads during rainstorms away from the ocean and toward the Hyperion Treatment Plant, where it can be cleaned.
Although environmental groups know where the problems lie, fixing them costs money, a scarce resource at a time where governmental agencies are scrambling to make ends meet.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency recommended eliminating $10 million in funding to keep beaches clean, and the California state government has also restricted funds to monitor water quality.
At the same time, the federal agency has also proposed weakened standards for water quality compared to those agreed upon in 1986, according to the report, and would allow states to choose “acceptable illness rates” for those that go to their beaches.
Those moves at high levels are concerning, James said.
“We’ve been lucky in Los Angeles County, because when funding tightened in the past, folks still moved forward with a good number of monitoring sites,” she said. “If cuts go into place, there could be problems.”
Over the coming year, Heal the Bay plans to fight for more local funding through the Clean Water, Clean Beaches program that would tax property owners to pay for clean up efforts as well as advocate for increased water monitoring at popular beaches, according to the report.