Marin County beaches received high marks for water quality for a fourth consecutive year, a performance that could be influenced by the drought.
All 26 beaches tested in Marin received either A or B grades last year as part of the latest “Beach Report Card” released by Heal the Bay, an environmental group based in Santa Monica. The grades are based on concentrations of fecal bacteria contamination such as E. coli, which can indicate the potential presence of harmful bacteria, viruses and microorganisms that can cause disease.
Arti Kundu, project manager with the Marin County Environmental Health Services division, said the severe drought last summer meant that rains that would typically flush pollutants out to the beaches did not occur until the last week of October, which is the final month of the county’s beach monitoring period.
“We didn’t get a lot of rain events and when we don’t get that we see that beach water quality is a little bit better compared to when you get a lot of rain,” Kundu said.
Similar trends were seen throughout the state. Heal the Bay said 91% of beaches monitored from Marin to Del Norte counties received A or B grades during the summer. The region also received 42% less rainfall than average, the report states.
Marin beaches and coastal areas are tested weekly for water quality from April through October. The tests are not conducted from November through March because the county does not receive state funding for those months.
While Marin and other northern California beaches had high grades for tests performed during dry weather, several beaches received below-average scores for tests following significant rains. In Marin, nearly a third of beaches tested after wet weather received F grades for water quality, including Drakes Estero, Lawson’s Landing, Miller Park, Millerton Point, Shell Beach, Chicken Ranch Beach and Heart’s Desire Beach.
For Marin, most of the data for these wet-weather scores were from the robust storm that occurred at the end of October. The storm was the first significant rainfall in nearly 10 months and flushed out pollutants that had built up over that time, leading to the lower scores, Kundu said.
“It’s not highly correlated that if it’s going to rain a bit more, you get worse grades,” Kundu said. “The one thing the report mentions is that it also depends on the length and frequency of the storms. That can have a serious effect on bacteria concentrations.”
Marin County also had 34 sewage spills in 2021 that totaled 381,519 gallons, according to the report. A 132,500-gallon spill at Schoonmaker Beach resulted in the county issuing a health advisory.
The 2021 report card also included two new Marin locations not included in recent reports: Drakes Beach and Drakes Estero. The data for these locations were collected by the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin, an environmental nonprofit based in Point Reyes Station, which has been monitoring the locations since 2020.
Morgan Patton, executive director of the nonprofit, said the beach and estero used to be monitored through a partnership between the county and the National Park Service that ended several years ago.
“Our interest was to actually have some updated data to understand what those water bodies look like,” Patton said. “We had no information on what was happening on Drakes Beach and Drakes Estero.”
Patton said her nonprofit now has a formal partnership with the Point Reyes National Seashore and the county to monitor Drakes Beach, Drakes Estero and Abbott’s Lagoon, which will be included in next year’s report.
The Point Reyes National Seashore has come under scrutiny by local environmental groups and the state for water quality issues caused by runoff from the dairy and beef cattle ranches that rent land in the park. The National Park Service was monitoring water quality between 2000 and 2013 at several locations, including South Kehoe Creek, Kehoe Lagoon, Abbotts’ Lagoon, East Schooner Creek and the main stem of Schooner Creek. Park staff said they ended the monitoring after upgrades at the ranches — such as fencing to keep cattle from waterways, manure control, the installation of onsite water sources and creek stabilization projects — have led to major reductions in bacteria levels, in some areas by as much as 95%, according to a 2020 assessment by the park.
Some environmental groups say the ranches are still causing an unacceptable amount of bacterial runoff into local waters and beaches. In January 2021, the Western Watersheds Association nonprofit organization conducted its own water quality tests over two days after heavy rains. The study found E. coli levels that were 40 times above the state health standard at Kehoe Lagoon. County environmental health staff and park officials said several years of water quality data are required to draw conclusions and identify trends as to the water quality at these sites.
As part of an agreement with the California Coastal Commission last year, the park restarted long-term testing of these previously monitored water bodies and creeks near the coastline. The park also stated it plans to conduct studies to determine the point sources of pollution. However, the commission voted unanimously in April to reject the park’s submitted water monitoring strategy. Commissioners said the plan lacked details such as identifying priority areas for cleanup, creating benchmarks to determine whether restoration projects were working and specifying enforcement actions against ranches that did not comply.
The park staff plans to resubmit a new plan to commission for review in September.
Attempts to contact the National Park Service for comment were unsuccessful.
Laura Cunningham, California director for the Western Watersheds Project, commended the partnership between the park and the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin to resume water quality tests.
“I hope that the park service comes with a much better and stronger plan for water quality improvement,” Cunningham said. “There is still a lot of pollution happening out there according to your local grassroots hikers in the park. I would specifically hope to reduce or remove livestock grazing from these creek watersheds that drain into Drakes Estero. To me, the only way to get better water quality is to stop the manure flow from land into the water.”
More information about the Heal the Bay’s beach report can be found at healthebay.org/beachreportcard2022.