Santa Monica Pier (photo by File Photo)

SM PIER — The Santa Monica Pier ditched its dunce cap and received an A-grade Wednesday from environmental watchdog Heal the Bay for its water quality, reflecting nearly $2 million in investments from City Hall to clean up the water around the iconic attraction.

In a brief but information-packed press conference, Heal the Bay Executive Director Mark Gold called Santa Monica’s progress “unique,” because it attacked the problem of contaminated water from several fronts.

Using funds raised by voter-approved Measure V, which garnered $2.3 million this year alone to improve water quality in the area, City Hall fixed an aging sewer pipe beneath the pier, installed netting to prevent pigeons from roosting under the structure, repaired a storm drain and changed the way it dealt with waste from the pier itself.

The results were a dramatic jump from being the fifth-most polluted beach in last year’s report card to an A-grade this year.

Gold reiterated his hope that more communities would choose to follow Santa Monica’s example and fund water-improvement efforts.

Those grades are based on daily and weekly samples that are analyzed for certain kinds of bacteria that are present when fecal waste is in the water.

That pollution can cause illnesses like stomach flu, ear infections, upper respiratory infections and skin rashes for swimmers that dare the waters.

Some swimmers think that they won’t have these reactions from just one exposure, but they’re wrong, said Dr. Aliza Lifshitz, a family physician with Cedars-Sinai.

“One exposure and one immersion is all you need to get sick,” she said.

Sometimes, symptoms don’t appear for two to four days after exposure, and people don’t connect the illness with its cause, she said.

Heal the Bay assigned grades to 445 beaches along the California coast. About 400 of those beaches got A or B ratings, which dropped 2 percent from the 2009-10 year, partly because of lagging grades in Los Angeles County.

Despite some areas’ success in cleaning up their act, only 75 percent of the county’s 92 beaches received A and B grades compared to 80 percent last year during dry weather.

According to a release by Heal the Bay, a handful of “problem beaches” dragged down the county’s grades,

The county is still home to four of 10 “Beach Bummers,” the most polluted beaches in the state.

Avalon Beach in Catalina remains the most-polluted beach in Los Angeles County, coming in as the number two Beach Bummer.

A surprise entry was Topanga State Beach, which lies in an unincorporated part of Los Angeles County near Malibu, and dropped from an A-rating last year to fourth worst.

“It’s very concerning that it’s the fourth most-polluted, which for Topanga is unheard of,” Gold said.

Topanga State Beach hasn’t been on the “Bummer” list since the 2005-06 monitoring period.

Researchers from UCLA, UC Santa Barbara and Stanford will try to trace the source of the pollution throughout the summer to find a cause for the dramatic shift in water quality, Gold said.

Wet weather scores in L.A. County took a hit from previous years, likely resulting from an increase in rainfall, according to the release.

More rain means more polluted runoff finds its way into streams that empty out into the ocean, and monitors in Los Angeles and San Diego counties in particular are more likely to pick up that pollution because they are the only ones that take measurements in front of storm drains and creeks.

Only 29 percent of beaches in the area got A and B grades, compared to 50 percent last year.

Statewide, 46 percent of California’s beaches got a “C,” “D,” or “F” during wet weather.

Heal the Bay releases its detailed report once a year, but it updates beach grades every Friday. This summer, it plans to debut a smart phone application so that beach-goers can check out the water quality of the beaches before they get there.

People can also find the scores at the organization’s website,

The future of such detailed monitoring remains unclear, however, since the $1 million dedicated to the effort got cut in then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 2008 line-item veto.

The State Water Resources Control Board directed some Proposition 13 Clean Beach Initiative grant funds to pay for the monitoring through June 30, 2010, and federal stimulus money kept it going through the 2010 season.

The Water Resources Board put almost another $1 million into the project to sustain it through 2011, but state funding will dry up after 2011.

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