The Santa Monica Pier has been a notorious “beach bummer” on Heal the Bay’s annual water quality list for almost 30 years, but after a hopeful three year hiatus, the Pier has regained its status as one of the most polluted beaches in the state. 

This year the Santa Monica Pier was number four on Heal the Bay’s list of top ten beach bummers, which are ranked by levels of fecal-indicator bacterial pollution.

“There have been many projects aimed at improving water quality at the Pier over the years, including a system for capturing and reusing storm drain runoff. We are saddened to see the Pier back on the list and we hope solutions to address the current water quality issues that it faces can be implemented,” said Tracy Quinn, CEO and president of Heal the Bay.

Heal the Bay has released its annual beach report card since 1991 assigning A-to-F letter grades for beaches across the state. A beach with a C ranking or below is considered unsafe to swim in and in this year’s report of 500 beaches the Santa Monica Pier received an F. 

A lot of pollution enters the beach from storm drains, which collect stormwater runoff during rain events as well as dry water runoff from things like car washes or irrigation. As this runoff flows through the County and into the storm drain system it accumulates trash, chemicals, bacteria, hardmetals and fertilizers. Much of this cocktail of pollutants ultimately drains into the ocean. 

“Swimming in water that’s polluted with that could expose you to pathogens like shigella, norovirus, cholera, salmonella, all these nasty bugs which can get you sick and send you to the hospital… and it only takes one exposure,” said Luke Ginger, Heal the Bay water quality scientist. 

There is a storm drain located directly under the Santa Monica Pier and a second larger storm drain called the Pico-Kenter drain located a few blocks south of the Pier. The City of Santa Monica is aware of the pollution dangers resulting from these drains and has embarked upon several pollution mitigation projects. 

One of these is a large water tank located underneath the Pier parking lot that is designed to capture runoff headed for the Pier storm drain and prevent it from entering the ocean. 

It came online in 2018, following which the Pier remained off of the beach bummer list for three years. Unfortunately, this year the tank was not enough to prevent the beach from ranking as a top polluter.

“We thought things were improving because of that tank that they built under the parking lot, but it appears now that there are still some lingering issues and it is a bit of a mystery, but we do have a few theories,” said Ginger. 

The first theory is that the bird netting under the pier is old and needs to be replaced. This netting was installed to prevent birds from gathering and defecating under the Pier, which contributes to the high levels of fecal bacteria measured in the surrounding water. 

The second theory is that because the Pier is both large and wide, the shade it creates underneath it fosters a habitable living area for bacteria, which often dies in sunlight. The last theory is that the rocks located off shore of the pier limit create a semi-enclosed area for bacterial growth by limiting water circulation in the area. 

Ginger said he is interested in working with the City to do a study on this issue and may, through his work with Heal the Bay, embark upon a wider study of piers in California to look at common threads between polluted pier waters and clean pier waters. 

The full report on Heal the Bay’s Annual Beach Report Card is available at