People walk down the Santa Monica Beach on Wednesday afternoon. (photo by Brandon Wise)

SM BEACH — The Santa Monica Pier remained ranked as the fifth most polluted beach in California in Heal the Bay’s 2009-10 Beach Report Card, though a replaced storm drain has contributed to a slight improvement in the quality of the water there.

Overall, Los Angeles County showed significant improvement in beach water quality during the dry-weather period of the year in Heal the Bay’s annual ranking. But a future lack of funding for water quality monitoring from the state could threaten continued improvement, said Mark Gold, the executive director of Santa Monica-based Heal the Bay.

Slightly beyond the Santa Monica Pier at the beach near Strand Street, the water is considered part of Heal the Bay’s “honor roll,” meaning that it meets 100 percent of the requirements of water quality standards, which a quarter of monitored beaches do.

Despite that beach’s cleanliness, the pier still ranks among Heal the Bay’s “Beach Bummer” list, meaning it received an F grade during the summer beach-going season, and was ranked the fifth most polluted beach in the state during that period. Avalon Harbor Beach on Catalina Island was listed as the most polluted.

The pier was also ranked number five in the Beach Bummer list last year, but was ranked second most polluted in the 2007-2008 report.

“The good news (at the pier) is that things are on the rise there,” Gold said. “They put in a brand new storm drain diversion system. They hope to put nets underneath the pier [to prevent pigeons from roosting there], and we’re starting to see good grades there for the last couple times, so that’s a good improvement.”

The improved storm drain was completed approximately a year ago, replacing a corroded drain that was often blamed for the pollution at the pier. The improvements also included creating a mechanism that diverts water flow into a nearby sewer system. City Hall also recently completed the installation of nets under the pier to keep fecal bacteria from birds from polluting the water.

Because four of the five monitored beaches in Santa Monica received an A during the dry-weather period, City Hall is pleased with the results of the report card, said Lee Swain, the director of public works. But City Hall also recognizes that work still needs to be done in regards to the pier.

“Measure V is beginning to have an effect,” Swain said.

Measure V is a parcel tax approved by voters in 2006 that is expected to generate roughly $40 million over the next 10 years for stormwater diversion projects, including the new pier stormdrain.

“It’s going to take time to realize the full benefits,” Swain added. “We’re cautiously optimistic that this trend of improvement will continue.”

To continue the trend of improvement, City Hall has begun a five-year plan with funding from Measure V that began in fiscal year 2010 and will last through fiscal year 2014, Swain said. Among the improvements will be permeable alleyways to absorb rain runoff and rain barrels to collect rain water.

Seventy percent of beaches in L.A. County received a grade of A in this year’s ranking, compared with last year when 70 percent received either an A or a B. But the wet-weather period saw little to no improvement, with only 50 percent of beaches receiving an A and 36 percent receiving an F.

“Seventy percent is actually the best we’ve seen in quite some time in Los Angeles County,” Gold said.

Gold cited government funding, like Santa Monica’s Measure V, as the reason for the overall improvement in beach water quality.

But maintaining high-quality beach water will be difficult when state funding of monitoring programs runs out at the end of the year, Gold said. Unless a new source of funding arises, Gold said more than half of the beaches in California will not have monitoring systems.

“We’re not talking about a huge amount of money,” he said. “We’re talking about $1 million a year, about $1.5 million, for these 20 monitoring agencies to continue monitoring our beaches to make sure that public health is protected. To think that that program is going to end is absolutely ridiculous considering we have a $43 billion coastal tourism industry.”

In a 2008 line-item veto, Gov. Schwarzenegger cut $1 million in funds for collecting and processing ocean water samples and for posting signs notifying swimmer of risks. While federal and local bonds have helped to create clean-up programs like six, year-round diversions for dry-weather runoff in L.A. and a treatment plant for one of the most polluted beaches at Paradise Cove, Gold said monitoring programs are equally important, but harder to get funding for.

Santa Monica, too, is concerned about a lack of state funding, Swain said. But Swain assured that Measure V will allow Santa Monica to continue trying to improve the quality of its beaches.

“Obviously the state economy is always a concern. This is just one other way,” he said. “Measure V was a strong statement that we care about our beaches.”

Chris Franken, 32, of Downtown L.A., who was at the pier surfing Wednesday, said he is concerned about the amount of pollution, but is not sure where more funding to improve it would come from.

“The state can hardly pay for its employees,” he said.

Franken said he gets sick about two or three times a year from surfing in polluted waters, but he still comes to the pier for convenience.

“But at the same time, you can see all the dolphins out there. I don’t know how bad it is if there’s sea life,” he said.

Some tourists said the amount of pollution by the pier would not affect their decision to come to the beach. Grace Hickam, 19, of Phoenix, said she thinks it is disgusting the pier is ranked the fifth most polluted beach in the state, but would still have come had she known that beforehand.

“When your coming from 150 degree weather,” she said, “any beach is good.”

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