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People play in the water north of the Santa Monica Pier on Friday morning. Since City Hall replaced a leaky storm drain near the pier water quality in the area has improved. (photo by Brandon Wise)

SM BEACH — One of the most notoriously polluted beaches in the state has been seeing cleaner days.

Frequently assigned a failing grade in Heal the Bay’s Weekly Beach Report Card, the water quality at the Santa Monica Pier has gradually improved in the nearly four months since the storm drain beneath it was upgraded, earning a B in the most recent edition on Tuesday.

While city officials said there is a combination of factors that contribute to the poor state, the leaky storm drain has long been blamed as perhaps the most problematic source, causing the bacteria level to often exceed state standards.

Using funds through Measure V, which voters approved in 2006 to pay for more than $40 million in water quality improvements, City Hall in May completed the pier storm drain project, which involved replacing a severely corroded pipe several hundred feet long and creating a mechanism that would divert nuisance flow that previously streamed toward a small area around the pier into the sanitary sewer system.

Heal the Bay in 2006 conducted a study on bacterial sources at the Santa Monica Pier. Mike Brimmer, who worked on the study and compiles the beach report card for the nonprofit organization, remembers finding plywood and sandbags at the mouth of the pipe to keep nuisance flow from reaching the beach.

“Now with the new pipe they have no flows going to the beach during dry weather, at least that’s what (city officials) are hoping for,” he said.

The report card today reflects the changes made.

After receiving mainly failing grades from November 2008 to the middle of June, including 15 consecutive weeks from March 10 to June 16, the pier saw its rating jump two notches to a C on June 27, maintaining it for another week before dropping down to a D on July 14.

Poor grades continued for about another month with one decent week — C on Aug. 19.

On Sept. 2, the pier finally earned a B.

The report card is based on data collected from various state and local health agencies that monitor water quality year round, translating the information to make it understandable to the layperson.

City Hall has also been reportedly working with researchers at UCLA to identify the continued source of bacterial pollution.

“The water quality issues under the pier are pretty complex and we really believe that a portion is related to the storm drain but we’re looking at other sources of some of the high bacteria issues,” Mark Cuneo, principal civil engineer said.

Birds have been identified as one of the contributors.

The study by Heal the Bay said the pond in front of the pier storm drain was the predominant source of fecal bacteria at the beach, noting that “pigeons are a definite source of fecal bacteria and the elimination or reduction of roosting sites in the inter-tidal zone area would help reduce fecal bacterial densities in the surf zone.”

City Hall has initiated steps to address the pigeon issue, recently hiring Bird Busters to install a net underneath the pier where the birds roost, a move that has been criticized by animal rights activists who argue that pigeons could be killed in the process. City officials have stressed that birds will not be harmed.

“Our goal is to identify possible sources of the problem and either completely eliminate or minimize each of those potential sources until we achieve a constant A rating, which is the ultimate goal,” Lee Swain, the public works director, said.

There might be progress at the pier but some beachgoers say they still stay out of the water.

“I have lived here 17 years and I think it’s gotten worse, maybe, but definitely not better,” Elizabeth Homier, a resident of Hollywood, said during a visit to the beach on Friday. “It doesn’t smell so bad today.”

Antonio Padua, a West Covina resident who comes once a month, said he doesn’t find the water quality to be good, especially compared to Laguna Beach.

“It seems like there’s a lot of pollution, just the water being cloudy,” he said.

Marissa Lyman contributed to this report

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