Santa Cruz beach earns reputation for tainted water

Cowell Beach in Santa Cruz may have made its name decades ago as a surfing hub, but lately its earned a reputation for its tainted water.

For the third consecutive year, Cowell tops the state’s 456 beaches as the most polluted.

It's a stat that's a little disconcerting for native residents.

"A little embarrassing," says John Mullen. "Because there are some things about Santa Cruz that are wonderful, but as soon as they show up to the beach,  there'll be signs posted that say 'Warning: the water may be contaminated.'"

In fact, signs are posted in the sand welcoming visitors, but also giving some people food for thought.

Kitty Bailey drove down from Folsom, Calif., with her daughter and grandchildren. She's uncertain whether or not they'll go into the ocean water.

"We'll see.  I'm gonna talk to my daughter and see if we still wanna stay here."

The non-profit Heal the Bay analyzed annual data collected by public health agencies.

You can read the non-profit's annual "Beach Bummer List" here

It shows about two-thirds of weekly water samples taken from April to October exceeded state's standards for fecal bacteria.

Experts say swimming in the water, especially for children, can produce skin rashes, sinus infections and gastro-intestinal illnesses.

"It’s not a huge surprise that Cowell Beach is at the top of the (beach) bummer list again this year due to a number of bacteria sources that enter the beach area," says Nick Collins of Heal the Bay.

He and other experts point to multiple possibilities including positioning of sewage pipes and businesses around the century-old wharf.

But the crux of the problem could be these feathered friends.

Nik Strong-Cvetich of Save the Waves says bird drippings are more than a nuisance.

"We know their fecal load kind of helps drive up those bacteria numbers during the summer."

The city of Santa Cruz is installing fencing under the wharf to help prevent the birds from roosting, but it’s been noted that the screens are going up too late to change the rankings for this year.

Some locals are dubious this 150-foot quick fix will have a dramatic impact on bacterial levels when the brunt of the summer season kicks in.

Still, experts say it is a step in right direction, toward removing this unwanted moniker that could impact business this summer.

On a positive note, according to the Heal The Bay's annual report, 95 percent of California's beaches got a grade of A or B for water quality.