Cowell's beach, a popular beginner surf spot, is also infested with a ton of bacteria, says a Santa Monica-based group.

Cowell's beach, a popular beginner surf spot, is also infested with a ton of bacteria, says a Santa Monica-based group.

A couple of weeks ago, while blazing temperatures and azure skies drew thousands of people to Santa Cruz beaches, the Santa Monica-based group Heal the Bay threatened the summery good vibes with a press release headlined “Top Ten Beach Bummers.”

In its annual Beach Report Card, the group gave Cowell’s Beach, right next to our beloved Steamer Lane, an “F” and listed it as one of the two most polluted beaches in California.

But talking to Steve Peters, veteran water quality specialist with the county’s Department of Environmental Health, it’s difficult to see what’s happening at Cowell’s as a bummer, exactly. In fact, the high E. coli bacteria counts that got the beach blacklisted are not even “pollution.” This is just a vaguely unfortunate fact of nature.

As it happens, the same powerful northwest swells that frequently turn the Lane into one of the world’s great surfbreaks create a lot of subsurface water movement in the kelp forest just offshore. The kelp ripped out of the ocean floor by these strong currents is dumped onto the beach, often just west of the wharf. It then sits there for months, getting doused twice a day by high tides and then drying in the sun.

“It’s a perfect place to breed bacteria,” Peters says. 

He adds that sea lions are another significant source of E. coli at Cowell’s—a fact that won't surprise anyone who’s gotten within sniffing distance of Seal Rock, off Lighthouse Point.

In summer months, most of the problem bacteria spikes in Monterey Bay are naturally occurring. The sooty shearwaters, which winter in New Zealand and are just now returning to our shores, like to overnight just off New Brighton Beach in Aptos—in flocks 10 million strong. “Soon after they arrive,” Peters says, “we will start getting elevated [bacteria] levels down at Sunset Beach”—the result of prevailing currents that carry the bird poop 10 miles south. Similarly, when anchovies flood into the bay by the billions, water quality suffers.

Peters is aware that many people suspect that man-made pollution is to blame whenever a beach is black-flagged. And there certainly was a time when businesses on the wharf and the city’s sewage system contributed to local pollution—just as much of the “fecal indicator” bacteria in California waters came from leaky sewage pipes, lousy septic systems and other human sources.

In the 20-plus years that Peters has been on the job, there has been a lot of progress. He recalls working with a city lifeguard “years ago” to map 130 “direct lines” on the wharf—drains that fed straight into the bay. He says the city has long since tied all of them into one pipe that goes to the treatment plant. He says the city is also vigilant about maintaining the sewage pipe that parallels the wharf. “If there’s a leak, they’re on it right away,” he says.

Similar things have happened up and down the coast. For instance, in Santa Monica, Heal The Bay spearheaded an effort 18 years ago that has reduced the input of raw sewage by more than 90 percent.

While in this instance humans are not directly implicated, Peters says, there may be an indirect cause at work. “Monterey Bay is a very, very prolific body of water,” he says. “Until we fished it out, it was one of the most prolific in the world. We’ve upset the balance.” 

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