A Bummer Beach: Cove waters fail Heal the Bay safety report

La Jolla Cove beach received a “D” grade from Heal the Bay’s annual report card issued last week, and made it to the No. 5 spot on its Top 10 List of Bummer Beaches (those with the worst water quality in the State of California).

In a press release on the report, Heal the Bay writes: “A new addition to the Bummer List, this San Diego beach sits in an enclosed area with limited water circulation. It’s also home to growing … sea lion populations. The failing grades indicate a significant health risk to the tens of thousands of year-round ocean users in Southern California, who can contract a respiratory or gastrointestinal illness from one morning swim or surf session in polluted waters.”

In 2016, La Jolla Cove beach-goers were often warned by the San Diego County Department of Environmental Health to “swim at your own risk” due to high concentrations of bacteria in the water. The first bacteria advisory sign from went up April 28, 2016, and the last advisory was issued late in 2016.

However, La Jolla Cove Swim Club President Dan Simonelli told La Jolla Light the number of sea lions has decreased since last year. “I’d say, there are probably less than a quarter of what the (sea lion) numbers were in 2016,” he observed.

Swim Club: It’s ‘a huge black eye for the City of San Diego’ “

La Jolla Lifeguard Sgt. Ed Harris said he couldn’t confirm whether the sea lion numbers are down because lifeguards haven’t done a count, but he said, “There’s diminished amount of them that are landing on the sand,” and rather staying on the rocks (where there’s more wave action).

Commenting on the timeframe of the Beach Bummer list, which uses data from last summer, La Jolla Parks & Beaches board member Bill Robbins told the Light, “The (sea lions) are still there, but they are around the corner at Boomer Beach. I believe we have had 10 weeks of good water tests now, which makes me wonder how Heal The Bay got all those figures.”

The connection between the presence of sea lions and the high level of fecal indicator bacteria at The Cove is a hard one to make, since no specific studies have been done. But for Swim Club members, some of whom have been swimming at The Cove for more than 40 years, the correlation is obvious: Last year, with a larger sea lion population, they saw bacteria levels go up and this season, with dwindling numbers of sea lions at The Cove, no bacteria advisories have been issued since December.

The nearby Children’s Pool, with a year-round population of harbor seals, has a “chronic advisory” for bacteria levels that “may exceed health standards” since September 1997.

Due to the health advisories, events held at The Cove — such as the La Jolla Rough Water Swim, the 10-Mile Relay Swim and the Challenged Athletes Foundation Triathlon Challenge — had to be relocated in 2016 to other swimming spots in the vicinity.

The La Jolla Cove Swim Club-organized Pier-to-Cove Swim will start on the northern side of Scripps Pier at 9 a.m. Saturday, June 24, but according to Simonelli, participation is down to a third of what it was last year.

“I’ve gotten about 10 e-mails asking how the water condition is nowadays, so I think that’s an indication that people worry about Cove water quality,” he said.

The La Jolla Cove 10-Mile Relay swim is scheduled for Sept. 24 this year, but organizers of the Challenged Athletes Foundation’s Triathlon Challenge and the La Jolla Rough Water Swim (also in September) haven’t disclosed their intentions for this year’s events.

For Simonelli, the appearance of La Jolla Cove in Heal the Bay’s Beach Bummer list is “a huge black eye” for the City of San Diego.

Coastal Management Plan

Ann Dynes, La Jolla Parks & Beaches advisory board chair consulted the recently released City of San Diego’s Marine Coastal Management Plan, prepared by Hanan & Associates, to find what the document proposed for decreased water quality at local beaches. “But as I reviewed the report, it really does not look at pollution in The Cove or swimability,” she commented.

District 1 City Council member Barbara Bry’s communications director, Hilary Nemchik, wrote in an e-mail to the Light, “The Marine Coastal Management Plan was commissioned by the Mayor and City staff, and the Mayor’s Office has the authority to enforce the recommendations outlined in this report. Although Council member Bry was pleased with the increase in enzyme spraying that started last fall, the talk of a docent program and the possibility of additional rangers, she is well aware that the Mayor’s plan does not address the issues that swimmers at La Jolla Cove are facing.”

Upon taking office, Bry proposed a six-point plan regarding the sea lions, including coming up with a plan to “implement legal measures to shoo the sea lions off the beach and keep them off the stairs to make sure the beach is accessible to people and swimmers,” as previously reported in the Light.

“At her first meeting with the Mayor, Council member Bry recommended that City staff research and pursue viable options to improve water quality at The Cove and explore partnerships with the County and State to address the issue,” Nemchik continued, “Council member Bry has advocated for this approach in subsequent meetings with the Mayor and will continue to do so.”

How it’s calculated

La Jolla Cove is the only beach in San Diego County to make Heal the Bay’s Beach Bummer list. With “D” grades for both summer days and wet weather measurements in the 2016-2017 season, this is the first time the world-renowned beach enters such a list. Past measurements of water quality indicate that La Jolla Cove was awarded “A+” and “A” in 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 seasons. The 2015-2016 measurements show “B” grades for summer and winter dry weather, and an “A+” for wet weather.

When composing the Beach Bummer list, Heal the Bay’s data analyst Karen Vu told the Light, only summer measurements are taken into consideration, “which is when the beaches are most used.”

“Even if the sea lions aren’t there,” Vu said, “La Jolla Cove, as I take it, is more of an enclosed beach, not having a lot of waves that help dissipate (the bacteria).

Heal the Bay vice-president Sarah Sikich supported this idea, “Other beaches that are enclosed or cove-shaped like Marina del Rey beach often received poor grades because there’s no water circulation.”

The non-profit uses data provided by County Department of Environmental Health (DEH) officials who analyze water samples from beaches once a week during the summer season. Sikich explained, “We take the data and depending on the concentration of the three types of fecal indicator bacteria, we grade the beaches on an A to F scale. It’s like a report card for academics.”

Heal the Bay didn’t offer a grade for “dry” winter water quality at The Cove. Vu explained when less than 75 percent of weeks in a season are sampled for fecal indicator bacteria, the non-profit doesn’t offer a grade as it may not be representative of water quality.

San Diego County Land Use and Environment Group program manager Alex Bell wrote in an e-mail to the Light, “The DEH samples … a select number of beaches identified as potentially higher risk during the winter. As a result of the various sampling schedules and the frequency, duration and timing of rain advisories, some beaches may not meet the 75 percent criteria set by Heal the Bay.”

However, Heal the Bay granted a “D” grade for “wet weather” water quality at La Jolla Cove. Vu disclosed that of the five samples that had been taken at The Cove after a rain event, “a couple of samples were over the (health standard) threshold.”

DEH does not collect routine samples during rain or for a minimum of 72 hours after rain stops as general studies have shown that beach contamination is likely during this period, Bell explained. “While no focused sampling has been conducted following rain advisories at La Jolla Cove, looking back at rain advisories and bacterial exceedance advisories at La Jolla Cove suggests there is not a relationship between the two,” she added.

However, for Simonelli it makes sense that water quality at The Cove will be affected by rain. “What happens in the wet weather, there’s still contamination there, because the sand gets contaminated (by sea lion feces). For Children’s Pool, the City was obligated to drench the sand there. Obviously the same thing is happening in La Jolla Cove.”

Reporter’s Note: The Wet Lab, a San Diego organization bridging the gap between science and citizens, is working on a La Jolla Cove Microbial Diversity Project, an effort to explore the microbial ecology at local beaches. Project leader Callen Hyland told the Light, “It might give us clues as to the source of the contamination (at The Cove).” The group has a fundraising campaign open to fund the study at