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By Shawn Raymundo
After appearing on Heal the Bay’s collection of California’s most polluted beaches three of the previous five years, the San Clemente Pier finds itself removed from this year’s infamous “Beach Bummer” list, signaling a stark improvement in ocean water quality at the popular beach spot.
For the 2020 summer dry season, comprising the months of April through October, the San Clemente Pier earned a C in Heal the Bay’s latest Beach Report Card, which assigns letter grades to West Coast beaches based on water quality samplings during dry and wet weather periods.
“The City is very excited to see the improved grade at the Pier,” Cynthia Mallett, the city’s environmental programs supervisor, said in an email. “Healthy ocean water is vital to the City in regards to the community’s quality of life as well as the local economy.”
Mallett also called the improved grade a “testament” to the Clean Ocean Program, the city’s urban runoff management plan to prevent pollution from getting into the storm drain system and discharging out into the beaches.
The program, she said, “strives to improve and maintain ocean water quality at all beaches throughout the City by identifying sources of pollution and abating those sources through education, enforcement and construction of devices that prevent water pollution.”
Except for the 2017-2018 report card, the pier has been assigned an F since 2016 because of “untreated dry weather runoff that flows into the ocean through a storm drain,” Heal the Bay explained last year.
City officials had previously pointed to bird droppings as the primary culprit, which prompted the city to install bird deterrent netting directly under the entrance of the pier, below Fisherman’s Restaurant and Bar.
In a press release last week, the city attributed the improved letter grade to the installation of the netting and a study that was initiated to identify and abate the root cause of bacteria exceedances found in the ocean water.
“The Study’s Stakeholder Advisory Committee, the City’s Coastal Advisory Committee, and City staff have been instrumental in water quality improvements,” the city said in the press release.
Expounding on those efforts, Mallett noted that the study initiated in 2019 had helped the city identify the source of the bacteria: avian DNA, which “was found in every (testing) sample.”
“Since the final phase of netting was installed in 2020, there have been no bacteria exceedances since December 2020,” according to Mallett.
Poche Beach and the creek outlet—another San Clemente beach segment but operated by the County of Orange—was also removed from the Beach Bummer list after making five prior appearances since Heal the Bay’s 2010-2011 report.
Most recently, the Poche Creek Outlet received an F in the 2019-2020 report, because pollution carried from the Prima Deshecha Cañada storm drain, sometimes called Poche Creek, empties out into Poche, contributing to the bacteria levels.
The creek outlet improved slightly this past year, earning a D during the summer dry period, and a C during the winter dry season, which covered November 2020 through March 2021.
For the first time since the 2013-2014 Beach Report Card, none of Orange County’s beaches appeared on the Beach Bummer list. Among the county’s beaches, 10 made Heal the Bay’s Honor Roll, the most of any county in the state, according to the report.
Most of the county beaches that made the Honor Roll, which represents beaches that have consistently earned an A+ on a weekly basis throughout all seasons and weather conditions, were concentrated in Newport Beach and the Balboa Peninsula area.
According to the report card, the county’s summer and winter dry grades were “excellent” and “stellar,” respectively, as 96% of the beaches received A and B grades during those periods. Wet weather grades, however, were “substandard” and much lower than average, as only 42% of the beaches were given A’s and B’s this past year.
California’s beaches overall, Heal the Bay reported, “had excellent water quality during the summer months of 2020. Out of over 500 beaches across the state, 93% earned good marks (A’s & B’s) in the summer.”
During the winter dry season, the pier earned an A, according to the report released late last month. With the exception of the Poche Creek Outlet, all of San Clemente’s beaches received a B or higher in the winter months.
Eight of the 12 San Clemente beaches highlighted in the report earned an A or A+ during the summer months, while one area, the Pico drain at North Beach, received a B during the summer. Heal the Bay didn’t assign a summer dry grade to Riviera Beach.
Mallett said that by next year’s Heal the Bay report, which will include water quality samples collected this summer, the pier’s grade should improve again, reinforcing the city’s latest findings that have shown no bacteria exceedances in months.
The city will continue its pier bacteria report through the rest of the year, Mallett said, “to further identify and abate potential bacteria sources that could cause an exceedance.”
She also said that “in addition, the public and residents can help by eliminating runoff due to over irrigation and washing down hard surfaces, which can transport bacteria to the ocean.”
Shawn Raymundo is the city editor for the San Clemente Times. He graduated from Arizona State University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Studies. Before joining Picket Fence Media, he worked as the government accountability reporter for the Pacific Daily News in the U.S. territory of Guam. Follow him on Twitter @ShawnzyTsunami and follow San Clemente Times @SCTimesNews.