This year, the San Clemente Pier’s water quality, at the testing site directly below the Pier, was dropped from an A grade last year to an F, testing so poorly Heal the Bay ranked it second on its top 10 “beach bummers” list.
City officials became aware of problems underneath the Pier last year when the Orange County Health Care Agency (OCHCA) began publishing frequent water quality advisories from 100 to 500 feet north and south of the structure. The county started testing the water under the Pier in 2015.
City officials have said they think most of the problems related to the Pier’s water come from the droppings of pigeons and seagulls that are abundant at the structure. But it also could be coming from a man-made source, such as a sewage leak or runoff from the heavy rains Orange County experienced this winter.
“It likely could be a little bit of both,” said Sarah Sikich, vice president of Heal the Bay. “The last few years we’ve seen favorable water quality, but because of the rain, one part of (the problem) seems to be the storm water runoff.”
Heal the Bay conducts testing throughout the year and compiles and compares the results with OCHA in order to formulate its report card. The nonprofit tests for E. coli, coliform, and enterococcus. These bacteria come from warm-blooded animals, Sikich said, but a key note to remember is that these are indicator bacteria and may not indicate a source.
“Because of the numerous exceedances at the Pier, the County implemented an adaptive sampling program for this location, adding monitoring stations 25 feet and 75 feet both upcoast and downcoast of the Pier,” a segment of the report card stated. “Results at the point zero sample site at the pier have generally been below standards, but the upcoast and downcoast locations meet standards the majority of the time.”
Karen Vu, beach water quality assistant with Heal the Bay said she hadn’t heard of anyone getting sick at the Pier, but that hadn’t been confirmed with the county’s health care agency.
Cynthia Mallett, the city of San Clemente’s environmental program supervisor, said people aren’t supposed to recreate under the Pier, and therefore public health “is being protected.”
Meanwhile, Poche Beach, which had been on the bummers list for years, received “honor roll” accolades and an A grade. Heal the Bay officials praised the water filtration system that was established to help water quality as well as Adam’s Falconry Service, which the city hired to use trained falcons to scare away seagulls.
Now that summer is here and more people will be heading to the beach, there is a silver lining, Sikich said. About 96 percent of beaches in Orange County tested by Heal the Bay received adequate water quality marks during the summer months in the 2015-2016 report because there isn’t as much rain, and the theory is there isn’t as much runoff to introduce bacteria to the water.
It can be an expensive process to protect the Pier. Mallett said the city will try using wooden blocks to deter the birds, and next year they may put up netting underneath the structure to ensure birds can’t build nests. All would need approval by City Council as the expenses are relatively high, Mallett said.