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Concerns arise at La Jolla Cove amid apparent lack of signs during recent water quality advisories

The water at La Jolla Cove was deemed to have bacteria levels exceeding state standards Aug. 25.
The water at La Jolla Cove was deemed to have bacteria levels exceeding state standards Aug. 25, leading San Diego County to issue an advisory. It was lifted Aug. 29.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

After the San Diego County Department of Environmental Health and Quality issued recent water quality advisories for La Jolla Cove, some residents raised questions about what appeared to be a lack of caution signs for the public.

On Aug. 25, the department stated in an email announcement that “beach-goers are advised that bacteria levels have exceeded state health standards and may cause illness.”

The advisory, the fifth one at The Cove this year, was lifted Aug. 29. It followed another that lasted from July 22 to Aug. 22.

An advisory means beach users should avoid contact with the water, according to the DEHQ website. The county has issued 33 such advisories for La Jolla Cove since 2018.

The county did not say specifically how the water may have become contaminated before the latest advisory. Communications officer Donna Durckel said a variety of factors can increase bacteria levels in ocean water. At La Jolla Cove, “the main impacts are contamination by sea life and people,” she said.

Bob Evans, president of the La Jolla Parks & Beaches board, wondered if sea lion excrement is causing the higher levels of bacteria.

Durckel said there have been more advisories for longer periods of time issued this year because of a shift in analysis protocol in May, when DEHQ began using the ddPCR method to test the water quality at beaches.

“This analysis method is more precise than the previous culture method at detecting contamination,” Durckel said.

The lifeguard station at The Cove gave no indication Aug. 26 of a water quality advisory issued the previous day.
The lifeguard station at The Cove gave no indication Aug. 26 of a water quality advisory issued the previous day that stayed in effect until Aug. 29.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

The next level above advisory is a warning, which DEHQ issues when water samples show high levels of bacteria and environmental factors indicate that “currents are pushing bacteria from the international border north.”

Access to the water will be closed when a sewage or chemical spill causes the water to contain pathogens that can result in serious illness.

There have been no warnings or closures at La Jolla Cove in the past five years.

Durckel said the county will alert the public about advisories, warnings and closures by posting signs at beach access points, as required by state law.

At The Cove, San Diego lifeguards post signs at the stairs entrance, Durckel said, as signs posted too close to the water could be swept out to the ocean by the tides.

However, Cove visitors said they saw no signs about the latest advisory, and the La Jolla Light observed no signage Aug. 26, the day after the advisory was issued. The lifeguard station message board, where tide and temperature information is posted, contained no indication of an advisory — only the usual suggestion to check about water quality at sdbeachinfo.com.

La Jollan Pete Ward said he also saw no signs Aug. 18 during the previous advisory. He said he asked a lifeguard about the advisory, which was posted on the website, and was told that water contamination only reaches a level a couple of times a year that warrants contamination signs being posted.

Ward said he’s concerned that “there is a disconnect between what is published on the website and what is displayed at The Cove.”

An “instance of a contaminated ocean water measurement at La Jolla Cove should be posted there,” Ward said. “Posting a warning sign is the responsible way to treat both San Diegans and its visitors.”

Durckel did not immediately respond to the Light’s inquiry seeking clarification on whether signs were posted during the August advisories.

Evans said signs have been posted at The Cove in the past and that he has heard signs often are ripped down by vandals. ◆