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Staff scientist Ryan Searcy takes a closer look into the state’s decision not to drop fecal coliform regulations at California beaches. It’s an important example of our advocacy at work, and how collaboration with regulatory agencies can lead to better environmental policies.

Advocating for sound, science-based environmental policies is often both frustrating and rewarding. In California, we advocates are lucky that regulators generally share a similar goal of achieving a safe, healthy, and clean environment. However, we often find ourselves at disagreement on how to achieve that goal. In the end, when regulatory officials change policies or adopt a new regulation, our hope is that the best science guides the process. All relevant stakeholders should have their say, so that the policy or regulation serves the public and the environment to the highest benefit.

At the end of August we saw one example of this as the State Water Resources Control Board approved updates to the beach water quality standards provided in the California Ocean Plan. While it is true that Heal the Bay does not agree with all of the changes the State made to these standards, we want to particularly highlight a major success: that in the 11th hour, the State, along with Heal the Bay and other stakeholders, worked together to rewrite the standards to be more health protective by retaining fecal coliform.

In any given sample of ocean water, you are likely to find a veritable zoo of algae, bacteria, viruses, parasites, and other organisms. Fecal coliform, along with total coliform and Enterococcus, are the three primary fecal indicator bacteria (FIB) monitored and regulated at California ocean beaches to help us determine if it’s safe to swim. FIB in the water do not necessarily get you sick themselves, but presence of these organisms may also indicate the presence of the organisms that do get you sick, such as Salmonella, Campylobacter, and Norovirus. Swimming in water with high levels of FIB is correlated with an increased risk of skin rash, eye and ear infections, and gastroenteritis. Because of this, the State protects beachgoers by setting and enforcing water quality standards for FIB.

Last year, the State began the process of updating the water quality standards in the Ocean Plan, something that hadn’t been done since the 1980s. Initially, both total coliform and fecal coliform were dropped from the ocean regulatory standards, while standards for Enterococcus only were retained. To support this decision, the State initially cited the EPA’s 2012 meta-analysis of 27 epidemiological studies that concluded, among other findings, that Enterococcus alone was the best predictor of illness from a day at the beach. However, EPA’s analysis is not the most recent nor relevant science on water quality at California beaches. Only two of those 27 studies were performed in marine waters in the United States, and only one was performed in California; both were completed before the year 2000.

Recent epidemiological studies performed at California beaches since 2012 actually show that both Enterococcus and fecal coliform are indicators of elevated health risk. Even more interesting is that some of these studies also show that fecal coliform is a good indicator in certain types of exposure and environmental conditions where Enterococcus is not. The Colford et al. study performed at Doheny State Beach in 2012 indicated that both fecal coliform and Enterococcus were indicative of risk of gastrointestinal illness, and that when a swimmer’s entire body was submersed, fecal coliform was indicative of risk of illness when Enterococcus was not. The Surfer Health Study, performed in San Diego by our friends at the Surfrider Foundation and the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project (SCCWRP) in 2017, showed that fecal coliform was strongly correlated to certain illnesses in periods of wet weather when Enterococcus was not.

Additional to its known correlation to health risk, fecal coliform levels have often exceeded California standards, even at times when Enterococcus does not. Heal the Bay maintains a large database of FIB samples taken by California beach agencies, and these data fuel our Beach Report Card and NowCast programs. Our analysis of over 328,000 historical FIB samples taken at over 700 sites in the summer seasons from 1998 through 2017 showed that nearly 23,000 (7%) of those samples exceeded state standards for at least one FIB. Of those exceedances, nearly 3 out of every 4 days in which a health standard was exceeded at a California beach, Enterococcus was partially or fully to blame. So Enterococcus is undeniably an important indicator at ocean beaches.

However, the remaining measured exceedances were not due to Enterococcus. Fecal coliform exceeded California standards alone (that is, when total coliform and Enterococcus did not) in more than 16% of all recorded exceedances, an amount that Heal the Bay argues is significant when considered with its known correlation to health risk. Looking deeper into the data, we saw that fecal coliform was the FIB in highest exceedance at a number of well-known beaches. Troubled beaches like Cowell Beach, Pismo Beach Pier, Santa Monica Pier, and La Jolla Cove (among others) may not have been prioritized for getting cleaned up if fecal coliform were dropped from regulation.

Fortunately, a fecal coliform crisis was averted.

The State was set to adopt the revisions to the Ocean Plan, including the amendment that dropped fecal coliform standards from the regulations, at a public hearing in February of this year. Days before the adoption hearing, the lack of consideration of the relevant California science and the historical FIB data mentioned above were brought to the State’s attention, and the hearing was postponed in order to consider fecal coliform standards further.

After a meeting in the spring with a stakeholder group composed of Heal the Bay scientists; expert water quality scientists from Stanford, UCLA (including our former chief Mark Gold), and SCCWRP ; the California Coast Keeper Alliance; and representatives from some of the Regional Water Boards, the State went back and evaluated the relevant California-based science and the historical FIB sample data from California beaches, using them as evidence to rewrite the standards to retain fecal coliform. When the amendments to the water quality standards in the California Ocean Plan were finally adopted last month, the existing fecal coliform standards were retained, and the state agreed to continue to consider the relevant science and data in future updates of the Ocean Plan.

The clawback marked a huge win for California beaches and the people who visit them.

It was also a good example of a regulatory process that involves consideration of sound science and collaboration between a regulatory agency and its stakeholders. The task is not done, though. Heal the Bay looks forward to continuing the conversation with the State Water Board and other stakeholders as we continue to work towards water quality regulations that ensure our beaches are all available for Californians to safely enjoy.

You can read the State Water Board staff report that documents their full analysis here, starting on page 62.



 

Heal the Bay’s science and policy department recommends the following votes on ballot measures that directly affect the health of Southern California shorelines and inland waterways.

YES on Proposition 68

 A vote to authorize $4 billion in general obligation bonds for parks, natural resources protection, climate adaptation, water quality and supply, and flood protection. The bond measure addresses some of California’s most important water, park and natural resource needs.

The issue: California has been facing frequent and severe droughts, wildfires, and the impacts of climate change. This bond measure would invest in our natural resources and help prepare for any possible disasters. Funds would help keep toxic pollutants out of our drinking water, clean up groundwater, increase local water supplies, and create safe parks for children while protecting the land around the rivers and lakes that provide our drinking water. Prop 68 commits 40% of the bond measure funds to underserved, low-income communities. Accountability will also be ensured through annual audits. Help provide clean water and safe parks for every community with this measure.

The stakes: California continues to face a reduction in support of our water supplies and natural resources from our federal government. Many communities in Los Angeles are underserved, lacking safe spaces and parks for their children to use, as well as lacking access to safe drinking water in their homes. With the continued drought, natural disasters and wildfires could become more frequent and damaging. By capturing and recycling more water locally in communities, Californians can help prepare for these devastating events by increasing our local water supply while protecting our natural resources for future generations.

Our recommendation: Stand up for clean, safe drinking water and protect our natural resources. Vote YES.

YES on Proposition 72

A vote to prevent property tax increases for homeowners who install rainwater capture and reuse systems.

The issue: Stormwater is a great potential resource for water supply on a local scale as well as throughout California. Homeowners can install rainwater recycling systems that collect, store and reuse thousands of gallons of stormwater each year for outdoor use in landscaping and gardens. These projects reduce the use of potable water in landscaping, buffer the effects of drought, and benefit our entire state. Currently, installation of a rainwater capture system can increase property value, and consequently increase property taxes owed. Help Californians conserve water by eliminating this extra tax for homeowners who choose to capture and reuse rainwater.

The stakes: Much of the rain that falls in California is wasted as stormwater runoff, which flows through our waterways and out to the Pacific Ocean. In Los Angeles County alone, 80 billion gallons of stormwater runoff is lost every year. In the process, stormwater transports oil, trash and other contaminants into our rivers, our lakes and our ocean. These pollutants pose a serious risk to public and environmental health. Californians who choose to install rainwater capture systems help to improve water quality and reduce water waste. These efforts should be encouraged and rewarded.

Our recommendation: Reward homeowners who choose to recycle our rainwater resources. Vote YES.

 

 



Wildlife along our inland waterways are getting ready for their Heal the Bay close-ups, writes staff scientist Dr. Katherine Pease.

If you live in L.A., you know it’s not too hard to find its wild side. We all know our share of party animals. But let’s talk about the real-life fauna  — the wildlife that has found a way to co-exist in the concrete jungle of L.A.

Heal the Bay has joined a new consortium of environmental groups working together to collect data about the amazing animals that call the area around the L.A. River home.

We’re working with the National Park Service to use “camera trapping” to monitor wildlife activity along the L.A. River corridor. Cameras are set up in the wild, triggered by motion and heat and left out for weeks to months at a time to document passing animals. It’s similar to the now-famous camera-trap photos of mountain lion P-22 in Griffith Park and other animals throughout the Santa Monica Mountains. (In the photo above, you can see a screen grab of an active coyote.)

The new photographic data will help us understand urban biodiversity and how animals use the L.A. River corridor. We expect lots of shots of our urban wildlife neighbors, including opossums, squirrels, coyotes and raccoons.  The information will help inform protections for wildlife, which will certainly be impacted by the city’s ambitious $1-billion plan to revitalize the river.

Some 39 cameras are being placed near the L.A. River from its headwaters in the Woodland Hills areas to south of downtown L.A. The sections are broken up into grids and different organizations are “adopting” grids. Heal the Bay has adopted grid #9. This grid covers the Sepulveda Basin Area and upstream from there to Reseda. Each grid has (or will have) three cameras and the cameras will be deployed for a month at a time in the months of April, July, and October.

Heal the Bay staff and volunteers are responsible for deploying the cameras, checking on them mid-month, and taking them out at the end of the month. We will help clean up the photos (remove photos of ourselves, vegetation, etc.) and then the images will be uploaded to Zooniverse. Anyone using the site can help tag and identify wildlife in the photos.

Heal the Bay has been monitoring water quality in the Sepulveda Basin recreation zone since 2015, so we are excited to see what wildlife is using this area in addition to the humans who boat, fish, and hike there.

The new camera-trapping initiative also supports recent City of L.A. efforts to promote and protect biodiversity in our region. Last year the City Council funded an index to assess urban biodiversity, policies and project to enhance biodiversity, and options for community engagement and outreach strategies. Heal the Bay is serving as a member of the Biodiversity Expert Panel to help inform this city-wide effort.

And the County of L.A. is just beginning an update of its L.A. River Master Plan. Heal the Bay is proud to be a member of the Steering Committee. We want to ensure that the L.A. River Revitalization plans include ecological and water-quality improvements. Data on wildlife and biodiversity of the River will guide planning by providing basic baseline information on what wildlife is there. We can use that information to set goals for ecological restoration and to assess success.

Stay tuned for more photos and updates over the upcoming months. Once the project is established in Zooniverse, we will share it with you all so you can pore through the many photos.

Other organizations participating include Friends of the Los Angeles River, The Nature Conservancy, LA Conservation Corps, Friends of Griffith Park, and others. The project is part of a nationwide effort to understand the impacts of urban development on wildlife. Currently, eight cities are part of this Urban Wildlife Information Network and another 12 cities are expected to participate in the next two years.

More information can be found in this post from the National Park Service.



In a guest blog post, Mark Gold, our former president, reflects on the lasting legacy of the late jurist Harry Pregerson — a man who truly healed the Bay.

When one thinks about the esteemed and distinguished career of U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Harry Pregerson, his leadership on environmental protection is not what first comes to mind. However, his Clean Water Act decisions were nothing less than transformative for the City of L.A. and the Santa Monica Bay.

In the mid-1980s, Judge Pregerson was the presiding judge on the groundbreaking Hyperion Sewage Treatment Plant case that led the City of L.A. to invest more than $4 billion into modernizing the treatment plant to meet the full secondary treatment requirements under the Clean Water Act. The resulting federal consent decree also required the replacement of significant portions of the city’s sewer system and the initiation of a stormwater pollution abatement program.

The highly contentious case was brought by the state and federal government and the newly formed environmental group Heal the Bay — a friend of the court on the case. Shortly after the settlement, I began volunteering for Heal the Bay and meeting with Judge Pregerson, the city, the state, and the U.S. EPA at semi-annual consent decree meetings. More than any other experience in my career, these meetings taught me how to affect successful environmental change, and Judge Pregerson was the reason why.

Judge Harry Pregerson, who passed away last week at the age of 94, was about the most unassuming person you have ever met. He was folksy and put everyone at ease, even when the animosity between the disputing parties was at its greatest point. By the late 1980s, he still was not an expert on sewage or even the Clean Water Act, but he was masterful in getting disparate parties to find common ground and even to develop mutual respect.

Subsequent to the Hyperion case, he was the key figure in litigation from the then Santa Monica Baykeeper over the city’s chronic sewage spills into L.A. waterways. The result: new investments amounting to more than $1.5 billion in sewage infrastructure and a seven-fold reduction in annual sewage spills.

Despite these extraordinary successes, I most admire Judge Pregerson for standing up to Mayor Richard Riordan’s administration in their attempts to get out of the Hyperion Consent Decree. The state was in a recession and upgrading Hyperion was deemed a waste of money by leaders in the administration. With no fanfare and no media, the sludge-judge shut down the effort. Ethics triumphed over cost cutting and the environment was the beneficiary.

Judge Pregerson was a highly ethical, humorous, and incredible human. As a result, he presided over one of the most successful urban environmental transformations in U.S. history. Foes became lifelong friends and the Santa Monica Bay went from having a dead zone, routine enormous sewage spills, and fish with tumors, to an unparalleled environmental success story. None of this would have happened without the quiet, unassuming leadership of Judge Pregerson.

It is hard to believe that Judge Pregerson is gone. We will still see his name on the 105 freeway, at the Harry Pregerson Child Care Center, and on the lab building at Hyperion. And, I’ll continue to think about all he has meant to Los Angeles’ environment when I look at my office bookshelf to see the commemorative cowboy-hat shaped hardhat so many of us received during the Hyperion Full Secondary celebration in 1998. He bettered the lives of so many and always fought for what was right. L.A. is a better place because of him.

You can read more of Mark’s thoughts about sustainable L.A. by following his blog posts.



Update (9/10/17): Bacteria levels remain very high in Sepulveda Basin. Most sites also exceed regulatory limits in Elysian Valley, although amounts of bacteria are lower than earlier this week. Based on these latest sampling results, we still recommend avoiding water contact with the L.A. River.

Heal the Bay is urging the general public to avoid the waters of the Los Angeles River this weekend because of alarmingly high levels of bacterial pollution.

Our staff scientists collect weekly water quality samples at four sites in the Sepulveda Basin and Elysian Valley, areas of the L.A. River that have become popular for kayaking, fishing and other recreational activities. The levels of bacteria are at the most worrying levels since Heal the Bay began monitoring L.A. River sites in 2015.

The results have a special urgency this weekend, as the fourth annual L.A. Boat Race is scheduled to take place at the Glendale Narrows (Elysian Valley). Dozens of kayakers are expected for the boat pageant and parade.

Samples taken on Sept. 6 in the Sepulveda Basin by the City of L.A. Sanitation Department showed very high levels of bacteria, well over accepted regulatory and health limits. The poor results are possibly related to runoff from recent thunderstorms and rains. A fish kill in the Balboa Boulevard area of the Basin has also likely degraded water quality. Low-oxygen levels, high turbidity and increased ammonia levels have been cited by city officials as contributing factors to the fish kill.

Additionally, Heal the Bay scientists and other monitoring groups recorded very high levels of bacteria on Sept. 1 and Sept. 4 in the Elysian Valley area. Rainstorms and poor upstream water quality likely led to the spike in such bacteria levels (the presence of which indicate an elevated risk for ear infections, respiratory illnesses and gastrointestinal illnesses for people who come in contact with the water).

Heal the Bay urges people to stay out of the water and to delay any planned kayaking trips until water quality results show marked improvement. Our staff scientists expect to get updated bacteria counts this weekend (please check our Twitter and Facebook pages on Sunday as we’ll be posting the results).

Unlike at the beach, there is not yet an official protocol for authorities to alert the general public or kayak outfitters when potentially dangerous levels of bacterial pollution are found at popular recreation zones at the L.A. River. The only way for the general public to know about potential threats to their health is to access water quality data on Heal the Bay’s River Report Card, which is updated weekly.

Heal the Bay looks forward to working with the City of Los Angeles and the L.A. County Department of Public Health to resolve jurisdictional conflicts about health oversight of the L.A. River. This effort should hopefully lead to formal protocol for proactively warning kayak operators and the general public as soon as they know bacteria levels exceed safety thresholds.

Every year thousands of people recreate in the L.A. River. In 2014, approximately 6,000 people utilized the recreation zones, according to the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority.

The L.A. River has been designated by state regulators as a bacteria-impaired waterbody. The Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board has identified several conduits of bacteria to recreational zones along the river: urban runoff, leaks and flows from wastewater collection systems, illicit connections and failing septic systems. Bacteria sources include pets, horses and human waste.

Experiencing the L.A. River firsthand is an undeniable way to make a connection to a river that needs supporters and advocates; many Heal the Bay staff members and volunteers have kayaked the L.A. River over the years and will continue to do so. We also believe that the public has a right to know what the water quality of the river is and then to make an informed decision about how they want to experience the river.

If you are thinking about getting out on the water, please check out our FAQ about recreation and water quality issues along the L.A. River.



As California’s legislative session nears its end, an important water bill passed out of the Assembly last Thursday, giving us hope that cities will soon find it easier to finance much-needed stormwater projects. SB 231, led by state Sen. Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys), is now headed to the Governor’s desk. We believe it’s a great step to increase runoff capture, cleansing and reuse throughout the state.

What is SB 231?
SB 231 gives cities, counties and local water agencies broader authority to finance local projects to put stormwater to use. Cities currently charge residents for infrastructure like sewage treatment, but have been hamstrung by rules that prevent them from charging property owners for stormwater services. Cities need public funding measures to build enhanced runoff infrastructure that can augment local water supply while protecting against flooding. We need to treat stormwater as a resource instead of a nuisance.

What problem does it solve?
California suffers from an outdated water management system that has created serious long-term challenges that are intensified during times of drought and heavy rains. For example, an average 1-inch storm in Los Angeles County sends over 10 billion gallons of runoff to the Pacific Ocean, along with the pollutants picked up and carried with it. This wasteful and environmentally harmful practice could be improved by capturing, cleansing and reusing that stormwater. However, one of the biggest barriers to plumbing our cities has been confusion around the tools local government can use to finance new or updated infrastructure to put runoff to use. SB 231 helps address this problem by clarifying the definition of sewer service so that projects designed to capture and clean stormwater can be more easily financed, consistent with how municipalities support water, sewer and trash services.

I care about clean water, but what other benefits does it provide?
SB 231 will provide economic benefits by creating jobs through local infrastructure investments and upgrades. It will shield our communities from costly and devastating flood damage, and it would also help cities and counties invest in a more water-resilient future in the face of climate change – cleaning stormwater to help build local water supplies and reducing reliance on costly and uncertain imported water.

What will this allow greater L.A. to do?
Each day roughly 10 million gallons of water flows uselessly from the urban Los Angeles County area out to sea, even as we desperately need water. Up to 630,000 acre feet of water per year could be generated by better stormwater capture and reuse in the state. That volume is roughly equal to the amount of water used by the entire City of Los Angeles annually. Properly managing runoff and water supply is a critical responsibility of local government, and in L.A. it’s required by regulations set by the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board. If SB 231 is signed into law, it will provide L.A. region municipalities more options for funding these critical stormwater service investments, allowing us to modernize the way water is managed in the region.

What happens next?
SB 231 is now headed to the Governor’s desk. Gov. Brown has until Oct. 15 to sign the bill into law or reject it with a veto.

Follow @OurWaterLA to stay up to date with the latest news about building a more water-resilient region. You can also learn more and get involved at ourwaterla.org, a website created by a coalition of leading community groups including Heal the Bay.



Wonder Woman

Mentoring is a powerful thing. Here we catch up with our former teen advocate Zola Berger-Schmitz, left, who has blossomed into a Georgia eco-warrior.

Heal the Bay is thrilled that our own volunteer and super healer, Zola Berger-Schmitz, will be honored this week at the influential 2017 Women in Green Forum with the Youth Trailblazer Award.

Zola came to us as a 12-year-old on a mission – she wanted to be involved directly in Heal the Bay’s work to make our oceans more vibrant and full of life. Instead of just coming out to a beach clean-up here and there, Zola dug in deep, got her friends and family involved, and even took her spring break to attend a Fish and Game Commission hearing and testify before the agency, requesting that Marine Protected Areas be established in L.A.

As her passion for environmental advocacy grew, Zola became involved in Heal the Bay’s efforts to prevent plastic pollution and build a youth brigade of high school clubs. Zola is now a junior at Emory University, where she is co-president of the Emory Climate Organization, an intern for the Atlanta Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, an intern with U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris and served as a youth delegate at the United Nations 2016 Climate Talks. As the premier venue to promote women’s leadership in sustainability in California and beyond, it is fitting that Zola is being honored at the Women in Green Forum this year.

Here, Heal the Bay vice president Sarah Sikich reconnects with the young woman she successfully mentored.


Sarah Sikich: What sparked your interest in ocean conservation and environmental activism at such a young age?

Zola Berger-Schmitz: Shortly before I turned 12, my grandparents enrolled me in an oceanography camp at Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego. I had always been interested in reading about marine life, but I hadn’t had much exposure to oceanographic research or to the field of marine biology as a whole.  What I learned at the camp absolutely blew my mind. I remember being fascinated by the notion that plankton could be bioluminescent, and enamored with the NOAA submersibles we toured that were used to conduct deep-sea research expeditions. That same summer, I had a sudden epiphany: “What if there were no more fish left in the ocean?” Later that year, I decided to visit Heal the Bay to learn more about ocean conservation and found out about a campaign you were working on to help adopt Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) along the Southern California coast. I was pretty shocked to discover that although we had national parks like Yosemite on land, there were no state parks underwater. At that moment, I knew that I had to do something to help, especially if I wanted to ensure that my children and grandchildren would still be able to see fish in the ocean one day.

SS: You’ve been involved in many campaigns and projects with Heal the Bay over the years. What was the most influential for you?

ZBS: The first campaign I worked on with Heal the Bay, the campaign to adopt Marine Protected Areas along the Southern California Coast, was probably also the most influential. I hadn’t had any experience with legislative advocacy and I had no idea how to get up in front of a group of stakeholders and give convincing testimony. Soon, several Heal the Bay staff members began mentoring me and through watching them in action, I learned how to write speeches that appealed not only to fellow environmental activists, but also to politicians who were more skeptical about the need to adopt MPAs. A few months later, you helped inspire me to produce a film with my entire middle school that focused on the importance of preserving the ocean for future generations. By the end of the campaign, I had grown from a shy 12-year-old into a poised teenager who felt prepared to present a film in front of the California Fish and Game Commission. When it was announced that Marine Protected Areas had been adopted along the Southern California coast, I was ecstatic and it was the first time that it fully occurred to me that anyone, myself included, could help have an impact on the public policy process.

Zola, second from the left, at our 2010 volunteer party.

SS: What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your environmental activism career thus far?

ZBS: When I was in my first year of college at Emory University, I decided to testify in front of the Georgia Public Service Commission in order to advocate for more renewable energy options in the Georgia Integrated Resource Plan prepared by Georgia Power. This IRP determines in large part what the Georgia energy landscape will look like over three year periods of time. Before the hearing, I was told that it would be unwise to use the term climate change when giving my testimony, because it could alienate climate-skeptic politicians. Instead, I had to learn how to make economic arguments about renewable energy and how to approach energy savings from the perspective of a cost-benefit analysis. It was quite frustrating at first to give a public testimony without including information about climate change and coal emissions. Over time, however, I learned how to adapt quickly to my environment, and I have become much better at gauging how to best appeal to different kinds of audiences.

SS: What is something you’ve learned during your time working with Heal the Bay that you will take with you for the rest of your life?

ZBS: One of most important things I learned at Heal the Bay is that you don’t have to be a scientist, politician, or policy expert to have an influence on public policy and to affect environmental change. You can be a middle-school student or even an elementary-school teacher. A lot of people are too intimidated to speak up for what they believe in because they are afraid that they will come across as inarticulate and uninformed. When I first got involved in environmental activism, I was in a similar boat. I didn’t have that much knowledge about the nuances of environmental legislation and knew very little about the science behind phenomena such as overfishing and sea-level rise.  What I did have, however, was the passion to make a difference. In college, a lot of my peers are surprised that I have the courage to testify in front of politicians or approach delegates at the United Nations Climate Talks. This is largely because Heal the Bay gave me the confidence to put myself out there, even in tough situations.

SS: How do you stay motivated in a field that’s faced with so many competing interests and obstacles?

ZBS: I always remind myself that change doesn’t happen overnight. Some of the most successful campaigns that I was involved in during my time at Heal the Bay, such as the campaign to ban plastic bags in the City of Los Angeles, were campaigns that took over 15 years to effectively implement. Persistence is key to staying motivated, even when things don’t look like they are going to work out. Often times, the most satisfying victories are the victories that were the hardest to achieve.

SS: What advice do you have for young women who are interested in pursuing a career in environmental conservation?

ZBS: I have a few really simple pieces of advice. First of all, try to find a mentor. It can feel daunting to think about pursuing a career in a field like environmental conservation, and it really helps to talk to someone who has already gone through some of the same hoops. Sarah, you are one of my biggest mentors at Heal the Bay and have continued to serve as an inspiration to me in college and beyond. Secondly, get as much practical experience as you can early on. The only way to learn about environmental activism is to participate in it directly, whether that means speaking at public hearings, starting an environmental club at your school, or simply signing up for a carbon footprint reduction challenge. The more and more opportunities you take advantage of, the more you learn about yourself as well as your strengths and weaknesses. And lastly, just go for it! You don’t need to be a seasoned environmental activist to have an opinion that matters.



Today we begin publishing regular water quality grades for freshwater recreational zones across greater L.A. Staff scientist Dr. Katherine Pease explains why the work is so important, and some interesting people helping us do it.

Last summer, Heal the Bay released a landmark study of water quality that showed that bacterial pollution continues to plague the L.A. River on a chronic, long-term basis. Our scientific report demonstrated that increasingly popular recreation zones suffered from poor water quality, and posed health risks for the growing number of people fishing, swimming and kayaking its waters.

The findings were a cause for concern, but also served as an opportunity – given all the renewed interest about the L.A. River and a $1 billion revitalization plan for L.A.’s central water body.

Building on that study and our longtime work to protect public health by providing weekly water quality grades at California beaches, Heal the Bay this year committed to regular water quality monitoring in rivers throughout greater L.A.

Today, we take the wraps off our River Report Card, a new online tool that lets users check for harmful bacteria levels at nearly a dozen freshwater recreational zones, stretching from Malibu to Frogtown, from Encino to Atwater Village.

We began monitoring inland recreational areas in 2014, starting with swimming holes in the Santa Monica Mountains, and adding sites in the L.A. River in 2015. To make sure people could see whether these popular spots are clean and safe, we posted the test results online in a weekly blog.

With our expanded River Report Card, the public can use our online map to check out water-quality ratings (green, yellow, or red) at their favorite summer spot. We will update the grades twice a week, every Monday and Wednesday. The data come from bacteria testing by Heal the Bay staff, supplemented by testing by the City of Los Angeles and Council for Watershed Health as part of the Los Angeles River Watershed Monitoring Program (LARWMP).

Our report on the L.A. River water quality garnered quite a bit of attention last year, leading to improvements in public awareness about water quality issues in the River.

Among the positive changes:

  • The L.A. County Department of Public Health now has a webpage devoted to Fresh Water Swim Areas
  • Additional agencies now test at recreation sites in the L.A. River through the LARWMP program (Heal the Bay was previously the only group testing the Elysian Valley recreation sites)
  • L.A. City Sanitation has posted new signs along the L.A. River about water quality that Heal the Bay and L.A. County Department of Public Health recommended

In another positive development, Heal the Bay has recruited some local students to conduct this work.

Under an EPA grant, we’re partnering with Los Angeles Trade Technical College, a public community college in downtown Los Angeles. Five LATTC students have joined our field staff for the summer, to learn the science of water quality monitoring and the art of advocating for environmental protections – starting with the River in their own backyards.

The enthusiasm that these students bring to the River is contagious, and their varied backgrounds and experiences bring broad new perspectives to our watershed work. (You can read more about them here.) The training underscores Heal the Bay’s commitment to diversifying the ranks of environmental science and developing future leaders in our region.

We will highlight their voices and experiences over the rest of the summer through Heal the Bay’s blog and social media channels – check back often to hear what they have to say!

These students have been charged with an important task: identifying where pollution is entering the L.A. River. It’s an important question, not only for people along the banks of the River, but for ocean users as well. The vast majority of pollution at our beaches is carried there via rivermouths and stormdrain outfalls.

To pinpoint these nasty pollution sources, the LATTC students are biking along the L.A. River in the Elysian Valley to identify and sample flowing stormdrains.

Conducting this monitoring is fascinating – we get important data, and the opportunity to be up-close and personal with the River. Every week we see people using the river for recreational activities like fishing, wading and kayaking but also for basic human needs, such as bathing and washing clothes.

Areas with flowing water provide people and their dogs respite from the oppressive summer heat. They serve homeless encampments as a place to freshen up or bathe. They are also ground zero for the often-polluted urban runoff that harms people, habitat and wildlife in the rivers as well as downstream at the beach.

These are sobering observations, but there is good news too. More people are connecting with nature and discovering their own freshwater oases in urban L.A. And many inland locations have good water quality. Residents are working to protect these special places and keep them healthy and safe.

We encourage you to check back here often, explore your local water bodies, learn about water quality, and learn what you can do to improve the health of your watershed.

If you are thinking about getting out on the water, please check out our FAQ about recreation and water quality issues along the L.A. River.



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This site is right in front of the luxurious five-star Ritz Carlton resort in Dana Point, but one-star water quality persists in the bird-ridden spot. Local agencies have argued that the meandering portion of Salt Creek has facilitated a greater bird population, and in turn increased the amount of bird feces at this location—ultimately leading to the poor water quality. A falconry program was implemented to reduce bird-related bacterial counts at the mouth of the creek. However, potential harm to federally threatened snowy plovers during their nesting season halted the program—a decision Heal the Bay supported. The City of Dana Point has also invested in an Ozone Treatment Facility to treat dry weather runoff.

Heal the Bay analysts assigned A-to-F letter grades to 416 beaches along the California coast for three reporting periods in 2016-2017, based on levels of weekly bacterial pollution. Some 96% of beaches received A or B grades during the summer.

But pockets of fecal bacteria still trouble our waters and threaten the health of millions of beachgoers. Here’s our look at the 10 most polluted beaches in the state – our annual Beach Bummer List.

To avoid illness, ocean-goers can check the latest water quality grades at their favorite beaches, based on the latest samples, each week at beachreportcard.org (or download the Beach Report Card app for Apple or Android). For more information, check out our Beach Report Card blog post or read the full report here.



Much-needed winter storms may have relieved California’s historic drought, but all that rain came at some cost – poor beach water quality.

Bacterial pollution at some of California’s most popular beaches spiked dramatically in 2016-17, according to Heal the Bay’s 27th annual Beach Report Card, which the nonprofit released today.

Heal the Bay analysts assigned A-to-F letter grades to 416 beaches along the California coast for three reporting periods in 2016-2017, based on levels of weekly bacterial pollution. Some 96% of beaches received A or B grades during the high-traffic summer season (April-October 2015), slightly above the statewide five-year average.

Wet weather was a different story, however. Record rainfall created billions of gallons of polluted runoff, which poured into storm drains and out to the ocean. Nearly 48% of California’s beaches received C to F grades, about 12% more than the statewide five-year average.

La Jolla Cove, a popular swim spot.

Polluted ocean waters pose a significant health risk to the tens of thousands of year-round ocean users in California. Those failing grades indicate a significant health risk to the tens of thousands of year-round ocean users in Southern California, who can contract a respiratory or gastrointestinal illness from one morning swim or surf session in polluted waters.

Beach Bummers

Heal the Bay’s infamous Beach Bummers List, which ranks the 10 most polluted beaches in the state, was split between Northern and Southern California. San Clemente Pier and La Jolla Cove are both making their first ever appearance on the Beach Bummer’s List. Clam Beach County Park, Mother’s Beach in Marina del Rey and Santa Monica Pier have each been Bummers for the past four years. Check out our Beach Bummers Slideshow, which has more details about each of the Bummers.

  1. Clam Beach County Park, McKinleyville (Humboldt County)
  2. San Clemente Pier, San Clemente (Orange County)
  3. Cowell Beach, West of Wharf, Santa Cruz (Santa Cruz County)
  4. Lakeshore Park, Marina Lagoon, San Mateo (San Mateo County)
  5. La Jolla Cove, La Jolla (San Diego County)
  6. Santa Monica Pier, Santa Monica (Los Angeles County)
  7. Capitola Beach, Capitola (Santa Cruz County)
  8. Luffenholtz Beach, Trinidad (Humboldt County)
  9. Mother’s Beach, Marina del Rey (Los Angeles County)
  10. Monarch Beach, North of Salt Creek, Dana Point (Orange County)

Mother’s Beach in Marina del Rey, a repeat Beach Bummer.

On a more positive note, 32 beaches in the state were named to Heal the Bay’s Honor Roll, meaning they were monitored year-round and received perfect A+ grades weekly, regardless of rain or dry conditions. Orange County boasted the most beaches on the Honor Roll, with 14 sites earning top marks.

Staying Safe at the Beach

“We want people catching waves, not bugs, when they head to the beach,” said Sarah Sikich, Heal the Bay’s vice president and longtime ocean policy advocate. “The reassuring news is that if you swim at an open-ocean beach in the summer away from storm drains and creek mouths you statistically have very little risk of getting ill.”

Swimming or surfing at a beach with a water quality grade of C or lower greatly increases the risk of contracting illnesses such as stomach flu, ear infections, upper respiratory infections and rashes.

Here’s how you can make sure that you stay safe at the beach:

  • Check BeachReportCard.org for the latest water quality grades.
  • Avoid closed beaches
  • Swim at least 100 yards away from flowing storm drains and piers.
  • Wait at least three days after rainfall before entering the ocean.

Baker Beach, San Francisco.

How to Stem the Tide of Bacterial Pollution

California often swings from extended dry periods to shorter periods of intense, wet weather. Our region needs to do a better job of capturing runoff before it hits shorelines. Heal the Bay advocates for reusing that water directly for non-potable purposes or sinking that water back into our aquifers rather than letting it flow uselessly to the sea.

If Southern California cities had the infrastructure in place, then they could have captured and reused a bulk of the 100 billion gallons of stormwater that drenched our region last winter. That’s enough water to meet the needs of 2.5 million people each year – about a quarter of L.A. County’s population.

In response, Heal the Bay’s policy staff is advocating for public funding measures to build nature-based projects that capture, cleanse and reuse runoff rather than dumping it uselessly into the sea. The Our WaterLA coalition is working with the L.A. County Board of Supervisors to place a funding measure on the ballot for innovative multi-benefit projects that will capture runoff and create public green spaces countywide. Look for the measure on the county ballot next year.

Heal the Bay to Forecast Water Quality

This summer Heal the Bay, Stanford University and UCLA are expanding their predictive beach water quality forecasting program. Using sophisticated statistical models, environmental data and past bacteria samples, the scientific team can accurately predict each morning when beaches should be posted with warning or open signs.

Promising results from the past two summers (at Arroyo Burro Beach, Santa Monica Pier Beach and Doheny Beach) demonstrated that agencies can post a warning notice immediately at pollution impacted beaches based on predictions rather than waiting days for test results. These new models will protect public health by providing more advanced water quality information to public health officials. This summer, Heal the Bay will run models for 10 beaches, from San Diego to Santa Cruz counties.