Orange County’s beaches typically earn top marks in environmentalists’ scoring for ocean water pollution along the west coast. 

But after a nonstop winter deluge and 45 million spilled gallons of sewage into the waters off the state between this and last year, even some of Southern California’s cleanest beaches are seeing higher amounts of bacteria-carrying fecal pollution.

It’s thinned out environmentalists’ statewide list of beaches comprising the cream of the crop every year.

And this time, none of them are from Orange County.

“Which is pretty rare,” said Dr. Alison Xunyi Wu, a water quality data specialist with Heal the Bay, the coastal health advocacy group that puts together an annual beach health “report card.”

“And that’s mainly due to the rainfall, which introduced extra pollution to the ocean during the wintertime,” Wu said in a Monday phone interview.

Meanwhile, nearly 29,000 gallons of sewage spilled into Orange County waterways over the past year.

In March, Doheny State Beach near San Juan Creek was closed for several days after a 4,000 gallon sewage spill nearby.

One of OC’s most notorious, Poche Beach, landed on Heal the Bay’s “Bummer” list again this year – a section of the list conveying the worst of the worst. 

Poche Beach is a regular “bummer” for Heal the Bay as it receives polluted runoff that’s carried from the Prima Deshecha Cañada storm drain – or Poche Creek – and lets out into the beach. 

At the start of the prior decade, the county built a treatment facility nearby to remove the pollutants with the use of sand filters and UV radiation.

But after the local treatment facility experienced equipment problems, the plant ran at partial capacity in the summer of 2022, “which was likely the cause,” reads Heal the Bay’s report. 

“It may be time for Orange County to reassess its water quality improvement strategy for this beach since it is no stranger to the Beach Bummer list,” the report states.

Still, Orange County recorded better than average beach health grades during times in which stormwater pollution is highest – when beachgoers visit during or after storms, increasing risk of infections and illness.

Sixty three percent of OC beaches received A and B grades for beach health this past year.

You’ll find that the locals are a bit harder on OC’s coastal health.

“I actually expected worse,” said Ray Hiemstra, leader of the local nonprofit OC Coastkeeper. 

“What this report says is that things are way better than they used to be. I mean, they used to just have green slime growing and it was horrible in Newport Bay – our coast was just a nightmare, and it’s a lot better now, but it’s not good.”

Grades are based on data from water sampling, in this case conducted by the County of Orange, to monitor water quality and protect the health of recreational beachgoers.

Samples are analyzed for three fecal indicator bacteria: total coliform, fecal coliform (E. coli), and Enterococcus species. In large enough quantities, they can carry harmful pathogens in the water. 

“In California, we do not have a lot of rainfalls, which means we do not have a lot of like dirty surface runoff that will introduce bacteria and viruses into the ocean. So the water is typically pretty clean for that reason,” said Wu. 

But Wu said that with wet weather, “we do see an elevated bacterial increase, because water will wash all the dirty fecal materials on the streets, from the roofs, right to the ocean.” 

Those who visit beaches during or after a rain event have an increased risk of contracting ear infections, eye infections, upper respiratory infections, skin rashes, and gastrointestinal illnesses. Swimmers are advised to stay out of the water for a minimum of three days following a big storm.

After 19 large storms called atmospheric rivers washed over the coast between October and March, coastal counties throughout California received 50% more rainfall than the 10 year average during the winter months, according to the report by Heal the Bay. 

Most of the county’s beaches are open ocean ones, meaning there’s enough water circulation with tides to the extent that “even when we have some pollutants introduced to the ocean, it can usually be washed away pretty quick,” Wu said.

With each annual beach health report, Heal the Bay will publish an “honor roll” list of California’s cleanest beaches. 

“And usually, Orange County will have 10 to 12 beaches on that list, because Orange County’s usually pretty clean. But this year, we only got two honor roll beaches, none from Orange County,” Wu said.

The reason: 

“Mainly due to the rainfall,” Wu said, “which introduced extra pollution to the ocean during the wintertime. So even some really clean Orange County beaches are having some exceedances during winter.”

Orange County received 19 inches of rain, which is 116% higher than the historical average of 9 inches; “However,” the report reads, “the very large increase in rainfall did not appear to have a negative impact on Wet Weather Grades” when pollution is usually highest.

Hiemstra has his reasons for cautious optimism. 

“I’m signed up for beach alerts from the county.”

The service is called OC Beach Info, in which the county Health Care Agency posts warnings and closure notices when it detects ocean water bacteria exceeding state standards during sampling. 

The month of June saw seven warnings posted for areas in Dana Point Harbor and Newport Bay. No closures were in effect as of Tuesday. 

“I think the biggest problem we have in Orange County – and it’s not just with bacteria, it’s with a lot of our environmental stuff – is that we’ve made a lot of progress.”

That, Hiemstra warned, can lead to thinking along the lines of “our beaches are good enough.”

“Good enough,” Hiemstra adds, is not what laws like the Clean Water Act require.

“It says that our water is supposed to be clean. And so that’s what we’re still working at,” Hiemstra said.

The last stretch of the mile run is often the hardest.

“And that’s where we’re at with water quality.”

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