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Fouled by Fowl: Campbell Cove received an F for water cleanliness, mostly because of concentrations of animal excrement.

Dirty Water

Being at Campbell Cove isn't always a day at the beach

By Joy Lanzendorfer

While most Sonoma County beaches are clean, when it comes to one in particular, going for a dip in the water could also mean you are dipping yourself in fecal bacteria.

Campbell Cove State Beach, a sheltered nook along Bodega Bay, is one of the most polluted beaches in California, according to consumer watchdog group Heal the Bay. It is fourth on the group's list of this year's 10 dirtiest beaches. What's worse, it's the only beach in Northern California to make the list.

For the last six years, the Santa Monica–based group has released its Annual Beach Report Card to aid swimmers and surfers concerned about water quality. This year's report card gave 346 beaches a grade of A through F based on the level of fecal bacteria pollution found in their surf zones. The vast majority of beaches, 80 percent, received A's or B's. But 27, including Campbell Cove, received F's.

Campbell Cove is no stranger to the list. Last year, it was the second worst beach, and in 2003, it was the sixth worst. The Health Department closed Campbell Cove in fall 2003 when water samples revealed 200 times the minimum safety level of E. coli bacteria.

However, the bad grade doesn't make Campbell Cove the worst beach in all of Northern California. The report is based only on beaches that are actually tested for water quality by state and county agencies. Heal the Beach collects the data and runs it through an algorithm to assign the grades.

"The report card is partly a reflection of how much monitoring goes on," says Mitzy Taggart, a scientist with Heal the Bay. "Northern California beaches are not monitored in general."

Campbell Cove's water quality fluctuates throughout the year. With some exceptions, it tested well at the beginnings of 2002 and 2003, but quality dropped both years during the fall. Pollution was high from August 2003 to October 2004, except for a brief increase in water quality in August 2004. So far this year, the water quality seems to have cleared up again. Until recently, the reason for the pollution was a mystery. Many suspected that the bacteria came from nearby campgrounds or the beach restrooms. In 2003, the Health Department commissioned a $500,000 two-year study on the problem, which found that the bacteria came from the excrement of sea lions, seals, pelicans, raccoons, dogs, deer, seagulls and a slew of other animals--but not people.

"The study showed that the contamination levels were primarily from birds and mammals," says Walter Kruse, director of the Sonoma County Environmental Health Department. "There's also some freshwater that comes in the beach, and the sediment seems to attract the seagulls, which adds to the problem."

But why is this particular beach collecting more bacteria than other beaches?

Over time, storm debris has seemed to collect at Campbell Cove, indicating it could be a natural place for bacteria to gather as well. Enclosed beaches such as Campbell Cover are more likely to be polluted than other beaches because they tend to have low wave energy, meaning they aren't flushed out as often as other beaches, according to Heal the Bay.

Another theory suggests that some bacteria may actually grow in the cove, which would mean it is less of a health risk than originally thought. E. coli is not dangerous in and of itself, but since it is in animal waste, it is used as an indicator of potential viruses. The Health Department has recorded no incidents of people getting sick from swimming at Campbell Cove. The 1995 Santa Monica Bay Epidemiological Study, a landmark report conducted by the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Project, linked contaminated beaches with short-term illnesses ranging from diarrhea, nausea, rashes and eye infections. Because the beach is polluted by natural causes, it's more difficult to clean up. The Health Department may commission future studies looking at ways that can be done. In the meantime, the state has posted a sign alerting people to the water-quality issue, and it periodically closes the beach if bacteria levels rise too high. Beachgoers who visit Campbell Cove are advised to practice good hygiene.

"Right now, I would encourage people using that beach to wash their hands before eating," says Kruse.

While 80 percent of California's beaches earned A's or B's, those grades were based on dry-weather data, which is when most people use the beach. Last year's wet-weather data tells a different story. In fact, overall water quality during this past rainy season was the worst on record. A surprising 90 percent of the 346 beaches received grades of fair to poor, C to F, partially due to the higher-than-average rainfall.

"The results of this year's report card show us that we have a long way to go with the storm water problem," says Taggart. During rainstorms, water runs across streets, sewage sources, dumps and everything else before flowing down to the beaches.

"Sewage storage is overloaded and tends to co-mingle with the storm water, flushing human sewage out onto the beaches," Taggart adds.

It's so bad, in fact, that Heal the Bay recommends people avoid the ocean for three days after a storm. They also suggest people don't swim within 100 yards of storm drains.

But despite the wet-weather issue and the few problem spots, California beaches seem to be getting steadily cleaner overall, believes Taggart.

"Most of the beaches are really clean," she says. "California is a great place to go to the beach."

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From the July 20-26, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Maintained by Boulevards New Media.

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