Is it Safe to Swim at Cowell’s?

Save the Waves reports an improvement in the beach’s water quality

 By Matthew Pera


Located directly west of the Santa Cruz municipal wharf and beach boardwalk, Cowell Beach is notorious for having had the dirtiest water in California.

Beachgoers can rest assured, though, that it is safer to test Cowell’s waters this year thanks to a project spearheaded by Save the Waves, a Davenport-based nonprofit that protects marine environments around the world. “We’ve seen a precipitous drop in bacteria concentrations over the past year at Cowell’s,” says Nik Strong-Cevitch, executive director of Save the Waves. “Bacteria levels are about 50 percent lower than last year—and that’s not a number you see very often in water quality.”

Water samples taken along the California coast are collected and analyzed by Heal the Bay, an organization operating out of Santa Monica. Each spring, Heal the Bay releases its annual Beach Report Card, which contains the “Beach Bummers” list highlighting the worst offenders of water quality based on the number of days a beach exceeds the state’s standard for bacteria content. Prior to this year, Cowell Beach had ranked first or second on that list for seven straight years.


Photo: Levy Media Works

Cowell’s landed on the Beach Bummers list again this year, but slipped down to No. 3. “We hope that continued efforts at the site will lower Cowell’s ranking in coming years,” says Leslie Griffin, a beach water quality scientist for Heal the Bay. “This is a big improvement for a beach that has been at the top for so many years.”

In 2014, Santa Cruz City Council created the Cowell Beach Water Quality Working Group, facilitated by Save the Waves. Members from Surfrider Foundation, Sierra Club, and the city and county of Santa Cruz all participate, with the goal of improving the beach’s problematic water quality.

The cause of the high bacteria levels remained unknown for years, but due to recent water-testing experiments done by the working group, ocean scientists determined that the dirty water at Cowell’s is due in large part to fecal matter released by birds nesting underneath the wharf.

High bacteria days at Cowell’s spike in summertime—the opposite of what happens at most California water test sites, where bacteria levels are higher during the winter due to storms flushing runoff into the ocean.

At Cowell’s, the higher bacteria levels during summertime can be explained by the influx of tourists, who attract birds by providing extra food sources, according to Leslie Griffin, a beach water quality scientist for Heal the Bay.

Once they determined the primary source of the pollution, Cowell’s working group installed steel fencing and spikes underneath the wharf to prevent birds from nesting in areas where they were once highly concentrated. The project was completed in July 2016.

The results have been drastic. Strong-Cevitch says the percentage of water samples that exceeded the state standard for bacteria content went from 59 percent before the steel grating was installed to 22 percent for the remainder of the summer season.

“Cowell’s is hugely important to our community,” Strong-Cevitch says. “It’s really where people come together. Out in the lineup, you see kids, older folks, people learning to surf for the first time, and people who rip on longboards, all mixed together. Now they can have the peace of mind that they’re not compromising their health going out there.”

Strong-Cevitch adds that the victory at Cowell’s is important to Save the Waves’ work around the world. Santa Cruz is one of nine World Surfing Reserves designated by Save the Waves. The reserve program protects outstanding waves around the world in partnership with local communities. Others include Guarda Do Embaú, Brazil, named a reserve in January 2017, the Gold Coast of Australia, and Punta de Lobos in Chile. “People sometimes ask why we’re trying to solve their problems for them, and they ask what we’ve done in our own backyard,” he says. “The success at Cowell’s really verifies our approach.”


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