SANTA CRUZ (May 2010) – With its mild currents and wind-damping cliffs, Cowell Beach is widely considered to be the safest beach in Santa Cruz for children and novice swimmers. But this popular family beach, located at the foot of the Municipal Wharf, has been increasingly plagued by bacterial pollution in the water.
The water at Cowell was posted as unsafe for human contact 67 days in 2008, and a whopping 172 days last year. The persistently high levels of bacteria tend to coincide with warm summer weather, and seasonal crowds of beachgoers.
While some noxious bacteria are deposited in the waves by sea lions and other wildlife, county health officials increasingly suspect that piles of rotting kelp on the beach are contributing to the deteriorating water quality at Cowell. Problem is, coastal regulations make it almost impossible to drag the stuff away.
Because decomposing seaweed provides food for flies, sand fleas and other critters at the low end of the food chain, the California Coastal Commission in 2005 forbade Santa Cruz from using machinery to remove the slimy heaps from city beaches between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
Since that time, contamination postings at Cowell Beach have gone up dramatically.
“The kelp stays nice and moist, and a warm day provides perfect conditions for bacteria,” said Steve Peters, water quality specialist for Santa Cruz County Environmental Health Services. “The bacteria divide every ten or 15 minutes, you get exponential division, and they increase until the organic material is gone.”
The situation has proved frustrating for families who haul their kids, blankets, umbrellas and boogie boards to the sand, only to find the water posted as off limits. Often, kids and families ignore the warnings and swim anyway, risking illness.
The pollution has also been a growing problem for the city’s popular Junior Lifeguard program, which offers day camps on Cowell Beach to hundreds of local kids every summer. The curriculum includes daily ocean swims, but high bacteria counts have left many classes sweltering on the sand instead.
“Last year was very problematic, we started posting that beach in mid-May and continued posting it all the way through October,” Peters said. “The (bacteria levels) just did not drop off.”
NAUSEA, RASHES AND BOILS
Peters, himself a surfer and ocean swimmer, said the risk of illness posed by high bacteria levels is real.
“The most common complaints are nausea, diarrhea, headache, lethargy and rashes, things like that,” Peters said. “But there’s also the possibility of eye and ear infections, or even boils.”
As a condition of its current Beach Management Permit, issued by the Coastal Commission in 2005, the city of Santa Cruz may request permission to remove kelp, by hand, at certain times of the year. But due to lean staffing in the city parks, and the difficulty of hand-carrying multiple tons of wet vegetation up the beach to the parking lot, kelp removal has been abandoned for the past five years.
Due to budget cuts, the city currently has only two workers assigned to clean and maintain the Main Beach and Cowell Beach area.
“The situation is that there are members of the Coastal Commission who believe that picking up kelp is unnatural and shouldn’t be done,” said Steve Hammack, parks superintendent for the city of Santa Cruz. “They would like it to remain a natural beach where you leave the ecosystem untouched.
“But we are responsible for these beaches where a million people come each year, and we’re trying to keep it sanitary and safe, and the city is stuck in the middle here,” Hammack said.“We have felt the frustration.”
City officials would like to return to using heavy machinery to clear excess kelp, as they did prior to 2005, to see if the water contamination can be reduced. But when parks staff applied to the Coastal Commission for a renewal of their Beach Management Permit earlier this month, they were advised by commission staff that any such request would likely be denied.
Neither Coastal Commission members Sara Wan, a major opponent of kelp removal, nor Mark Stone, a Santa Cruz County Supervisor recently named to the commission, could be reached for comment on this story.
A hearing on the city’s permit renewal is tentatively scheduled for the Coastal Commission’s July meeting, but without significant lobbying by the public, changes in the kelp-removal rules are not expected.
WORK RELEASE CREWS
Instead, city officials are now working with the County Sheriff’s office to try and organize work release crews to begin hand-clearing the worst of the kelp this summer.
“We are not going to wait for a change in the permit, we’re working on getting some crews down there,” said Santa Cruz Mayor Mike Rotkin. “But we just don’t have a lot of resources to throw at this problem. We’ve reduced our park staff by 65 percent in the past ten years.”
Ironically, some of the conditions that make Cowell Beach attractive for children and families also contribute to the poor water quality. The cliffs at the west end of the beach block brisk ocean currents, which make it safer for swimming but prevent the natural flushing-out of contaminated water and loose-floating kelp.
The sea lions that enjoy lounging around the wharf are fun for kids to watch, but also poop in the water. And visitors who toss snacks to the animals add their extra bit of pollution to the waves.
NOT A SWIMMING POOL
“Bottom line, it’s the ocean, and not a swimming pool,” said Jon Bombaci, wharf supervisor for the city of Santa Cruz. “And it’s a cove, and the water exchange is pretty limited out there.”
Bombaci, who trained as an environmental scientist, agrees that rotting kelp is an important part of the ecosystem, and he is skeptical that removing excess kelp will solve all of the water contamination problems at Cowell Beach. But he thinks even a partial improvement is worth pursuing.
“I do understand the environmental point of view, but I think the reality is that you have to do some picking and choosing,” Bombaci said. “In some areas, public health and safety are going to have to trump environmental concerns, and that just seems to be the most realistic view.”