According to Heal the Bay, Santa Monica Bay beaches performed noticeably better during the summer months, with 91 percent of the monitored locations receiving As or Bs, compared to 86 percent last year. (photo by Brandon Wise)

SM BAY — Swimmers this summer basked in a third consecutive season of excellent water quality, with many local beaches receiving high marks compared to a year ago, according to Heal the Bay’s “End of Summer Beach Report Card,” which was released Wednesday.

Santa Monica Bay monitoring locations fared notably better than last summer, exhibiting water quality of 91 percent (A and B) compared to last year’s 86 percent, with some areas, such as the beach just west of Wilshire Boulevard going from an F to an A thanks to an urban runoff filtration and diversion system installed at Palisades Park.

Of the 458 beaches along the California coast that were assigned grades from Memorial Day to Labor Day, 92 percent received an A or a B grade during the high-traffic summer season, slightly better than last year, when 91 percent of beaches received high marks.

California’s persistent and ongoing low rainfall totals, which limited polluted urban runoff in storm drain systems, played a major role in better water quality. Enhanced infrastructure at several sites, including the Santa Monica Pier and the Temescal Canyon section of Will Rogers State Beach, also led to improved grades, said Mike Grimmer, who manages the environmental watchdog’s Beach Report Card program.

There were only 36 locations in the state that received fair-to-poor water quality grades, roughly 8 percent of all graded beaches. Some 21 beaches received failing grades statewide.

The Beach Report Card is based on the routine monitoring of beaches from Humboldt County to the Mexican border by local health agencies and dischargers. Water samples are analyzed for bacteria that indicate pollution from numerous sources. The better the grade a beach receives, the lower the risk of illness to ocean users.

“Record low rainfall has helped maintain great water quality at the vast majority of California’s beaches for the third summer in a row,” said Mark Gold, president of Heal the Bay and chair of Santa Monica’s Task Force on the Environment. “But we can’t become complacent in our efforts to improve water quality in the summer season. We need long-term funding for beach monitoring and to ensure that problem beaches are safe for swimming every summer.”

Los Angeles County once again had some of the lowest summer grades in the state, with only 80 percent of its 81 beaches receiving A or B marks. This year, 10 beaches in the county earned an F during the summer, but that marks improvement from last summer, when 19 percent of sites received failing grades, Grimmer said.

A few Santa Monica Bay beaches still regularly exceeded newly adopted bacteria standards from April 1 to Sept. 3. Santa Monica Pier, Dockweiler State Beach at Ballona Creek, Surfrider Beach in Malibu, Topanga State Beach and Redondo Municipal Pier were the worst offenders.

Water quality near the pier has improved in recent months because of City Hall’s replacement of an aging storm drain. City officials are planning to replace an old sewer system serving pier businesses and place netting underneath the pier to prevent pigeons from nesting, and therefore defecating in the water. City Hall is also trying to work with UCLA to study bacterial levels in the sand underneath the pier. Bacteria could be thriving in the damp, dark conditions.

“Our goal [with the pier] is to identify any and all sources [of bacteria] and do whatever we can to minimize or eliminate the sources of bacteria that may be contributing to those counts,” said Lee Swain, City Hall’s director of public works.

Swain said the voters of Santa Monica helped make the improvements possible, passing a parcel tax in 2006 to generate funds for urban runoff collection and filtration projects. The measure is expected to fund over $40 million in projects to improve water quality, the pier storm drain being one of them.

In the next five years, City Hall will be looking at a variety of measures to improve water quality, such as putting in permeable concrete in alleys and roadways to allow water to permeate into the ground where it can be naturally filtered. Recently, City Hall unveiled the Bicknell Avenue “Green Street” demonstration project which incorporates landscaped biofilter swales and infiltration areas to reduce impervious street surfaces. The goal is to incorporate that into other street projects.

Residents can also contact the Office of Sustainability and the Environment to learn about rainwater harvesting programs and rebates.

“The city is attacking [the pier] from all angles,” Grimmer said. “They are not just resting on their laurels.”

Grimmer expects water quality to continue to improve as municipalities become more familiar with and fine tune systems they install.

Some 40 percent of monitored Long Beach locations received grades of C or worse, but that marks an improvement from last year, when 48 percent of beaches scored fair-to-poorly. Of note, there were fewer sites monitored this summer due to budget cuts. Extensive source tracking demonstrates that the vast majority of contamination comes from numerous sources along the 40-mile long, industrialized Los Angeles River, which drains into the ocean in Long Beach.

Orange County once again enjoyed excellent water quality this summer, with 102 out of 103 monitored beaches registering an A or B grade. Despite the installation of a new UV treatment facility at the mouth of Poche Creek, Poche Beach received an F grade. San Juan Creek at Doheny Beach scored an F grade last year but improved to an A grade this summer. All historically poor beaches in Dana Point received A grades.

San Diego County also notched top marks, with 78 of its 79 monitored beaches earning an A or B grade. The county has completed numerous storm drain diversions into its sewage systems during the busy summer months, spurring a trend of steadily improving marks over the past five years. The only dark spot this summer was Pacific Beach Point, which received an F grade.

Overall water quality at beaches throughout Ventura County was excellent again this summer and among the best in the state. All 39 monitoring locations received A grades. But the number of monitoring locations in Ventura County dropped from 54 last year due to state budget cuts.

Water quality at beaches in Santa Barbara County was some of the best on record this summer. Nearly 94 percent of Santa Barbara monitoring locations received an A or B grade. Arroyo Burro (C) was the only location that did not earn an A or B grade this summer.

Beaches along Central and Northern California almost uniformly earned A grades, including those in San Luis Obispo, Monterey, San Mateo, San Francisco, Alameda, Sonoma and Mendocino counties.

Two Santa Cruz beaches received the only F grades north of Los Angeles. Authorities have been tracking the high bacteria counts near one of these failing beaches, Cowell Beach, this summer and attribute them to an excess of decaying kelp. Capitola Beach, west of the jetty, received the county’s other F grade.

About water testing

In the wake of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 2008 line-time veto of funding to support beach water quality monitoring statewide, local agencies had to scramble to pay for this critical public health program this year, Heal the Bay officials said.

The State Water Resources Control Board recently approved 604(b) stimulus funds to extend monitoring throughout 2010. However, there is no secured funding in 2011. Heal the Bay will continue to work with state and local governments to ensure funding for what they consider a critical program.

Officials with Heal the Bay said the beach report card is encouraging but the real test will come during the winter months when more rainfall is expected.

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