Heavy rains this winter were good for the drought but bad for beach water quality.
That’s according to Santa Monica nonprofit Heal the Bay, which released its 2016-2017 Beach Report Card ranking the state’s healthiest — and grungiest — beaches. Each beach was assigned a letter grade of A to F based on how much harmful bacteria was found in the water from April 2016 through March.
The better the grade, the less you should worry about getting sick after a day at the beach.
Rainfall along the coast this winter led to billions of gallons of polluted runoff overwhelming storm drains and flowing out to the ocean.
Heal the Bay’s report says that of the 85 beaches monitored in Los Angeles County nearly half of them were slapped with F grades during wet weather. That's an 11 percent increase in bad beach grades compared to the previous survey period.
The finding was also a stark comparison to the 2016 summer reporting period (April to October), when no beaches received a failing grade.
Heal the Bay Vice President Sarah Sikich told KPCC that the region needs to do a better job of capturing polluted runoff before it hits the ocean.
Even though last winter's rainfall seemed to be off the charts to many Southern Californians, data show it wasn't far from what the region typically gets in wet-weather season, Sikich said.
“It’s a signal to me that our municipalities need to take seriously the importance of capturing, creating and cleaning that stormwater so that we can beneficially reuse it to enhance our local water supplies," she said.
Creating infrastructure to reuse polluted water or sinking it back into aquifers rather than letting it flow out to sea could solve the problem.
Sikich told KPCC that if these systems were in place, Southern California could have saved and reused most of the estimated 100 billion gallons of storm runoff this winter.
"That's enough water to meet the needs of 2.5 million people each year — about a quarter of Los Angeles County's population," she said.
To avoid getting illnesses such as stomach flu or infection, Heal the Bay advises swimming only at beaches with a water quality grade of C or higher.
“We want people catching waves, not bugs, when they head to the beach,” Sikich said in a release.
But the numbers look more encouraging for the dry summer months. Ninety-three percent of beaches surveyed in L.A. County were awarded A grades during high-traffic summer months — 4 percent more than the same time the previous year.
Other pockets of Southern California also fared well. Ninety-five percent of Orange County's 117 surveyed beaches earned A grades for the summer months. And for the seventh time in a row, all 40 of Ventura's monitored beaches scored A grades.
Fourteen beaches in Orange County and one in Ventura also landed on California's "Honor Roll."
Sikich said that California's water quality overall during the summer was excellent — 96 percent of the 416 beaches surveyed received A or B grades, slightly better than the previous year.
Yet, during wet weather, grades plummeted statewide. Only 52 percent of beaches earned A or B grades — much lower than the all-time high of 69 percent in the 2014-2015 report, which covered peak drought years.
The organization is also expanding its daily beach water quality forecasting program to run models for 10 beaches up and down the state. That's after the success of three pilot projects over the past two summers, in which Heal the Bay found that agencies didn't have to wait days for test results to post a warning notice at pollution-impacted beaches.
Sikich said locals can do their part to help clean up beaches simply by using less water.
"Even on a dry day, we estimate that about 10 million gallons of runoff makes its way to our creeks, rivers and oceans — from people watering their lawns, washing their cars and just the simple runoff that could be prevented," she said.
Another potential threat to California's beach health is the Trump administration's proposed cuts to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which would slash funding for beach monitoring, Sikich said.
"Many counties in California rely solely on those federal funds to conduct their regular beach-water quality monitoring," she said.
Heal the Bay's "Beach Bummer" list of the top 10 most polluted beaches in the state includes five in Southern California this year. These beaches received a letter grade of D to F:
These four beaches in L.A. County made the statewide “Honor Roll” for getting A+ grades every week for the past year:
Curious about the health of your local beach? You can check BeachReportCard.org to see the latest pollution grades for any state beach — updated every Friday.