La Jolla beaches get high grades on annual water quality report card, though Cove gets an F in wet weather

Scott Johnston surfs at La Jolla Shores
Scott Johnston surfs at La Jolla Shores, where beaches received high marks in Heal the Bay’s annual Beach Report Card for water quality.

La Jolla beaches got mostly A’s on the 30th annual Beach Report Card issued this week by nonprofit environmental group Heal the Bay, which assigns letter grades to beaches based on bacteria levels found in water samples throughout the year.

However, La Jolla Cove was among nine San Diego County beaches receiving an F for conditions in wet weather.

“California’s beaches are iconic and essential to our economy here,” said Shelley Luce, president and chief executive of Heal the Bay. “But unfortunately, they are not always clean and not always safe.”

The report card has “elevated awareness” among the public about the potential health risks of ocean water at different times of the year and in different weather, Luce said. The report ranks beach water conditions in winter dry weather, summer dry weather and wet weather. Bacteria levels typically spike during and after storms, when rainfall washes contaminants down creeks and storm drains into the surf zone.

Here’s how La Jolla beaches fared on the report card, with grades listed in order of summer dry weather, winter dry weather and wet weather:

  • La Jolla Shores, near Avenida de la Playa: A, A, A
  • La Jolla Shores, near Vallecitos: no grade, A, A
  • La Jolla Shores, near El Paseo Grande: no grade, A+, A+
  • Children’s Pool: A, B, A+
  • La Jolla Cove: C, C, F
  • Near Palomar Avenue: no grade, A, A
  • Windansea Beach, near Playa del Norte Street: no grade, A, A+
  • Windansea Beach, near Bonair Street: no grade, A, A+
  • Near Vista de la Playa: no grade, A+, A+
  • Near Ravina Street, south of Nicholson Point: no grade, A+, A+
  • South Casa Beach: no grade, A, A+

In California this year, 92 percent of beaches scored A or B grades during summer dry weather, and 91 percent earned those grades in winter dry weather. Just 65 percent, however, got high marks in wet weather.
San Diego County beaches scored slightly lower for dry conditions, with 90 percent getting A or B grades in summer and 88 percent in winter. However, the county fared better than the statewide average in wet weather, with 82 percent of beaches earning A’s or B’s.

Several North County beaches claimed top marks, while southern beaches showed more problems with pollution.

The report card “honor roll,” which highlights sites that scored A+ for all seasons and weather conditions, this year has 10 North County beaches on the list.

California's dirtiest beaches; San Diego County's best beaches

One San Diego beach — Vacation Isle Cove in Mission Bay — made the “Beach Bummers” list of the 10 worst sites for summer water quality, scoring an F for the season.

The grades are based on levels of three fecal indicator bacteria: total coliform, fecal coliform and Enterococcus species. These bacteria indicate the presence of harmful pathogens in the water that can cause skin, respiratory or gastrointestinal infections in people who are exposed to them.

Heal the Bay collects routine water sampling data from county and state health agencies, tribal agencies, sanitation departments and dischargers along the West Coast in order to analyze the bacteria counts, according to the report.

Over the three decades the organization has prepared the annual report, dry weather water quality has become “significantly better,” Luce said. “Our wet weather grades, however, show a significant decline. Water quality in the surf zone is significantly worse than when we first started reporting them.”

However, she said, those declines correspond with a change in water sampling techniques, with agencies now required to test water immediately next to the outfall, where contaminants are more concentrated, instead of farther into the surf zone, where they may be more diluted.

This year, the report also discussed how the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic may affect beach access and water quality.

While the pandemic has dramatically changed beach access, with many coastal areas partially or completely closed for weeks, it’s not likely to present a health risk to swimmers, the report authors said.

“We do not know how long the virus survives in sewage or in the ocean,” said Luke Ginger, a water quality scientist with Heal the Bay, who noted that researchers have found the virus in sewage samples.

However, he said that by the time it’s discharged to the sea, sewage flows are likely so diluted that they pose little risk of virus transmission.

“Experts have said that the chance of transmission in the ocean is very low,” he said. “The virus mostly spreads through person-to-person contact.”

To be safe, however, he said swimmers should avoid shallow, enclosed beaches with poor water circulation, swim at least 100 yards from flowing storm drains, wait three days after rainfall to enter the ocean, and wear masks and practice social distancing on the beach.

La Jolla Light staff contributed to this report.