Orange County makes the ‘honor roll’ for beaches on Heal the Bay report

A view of Treasure Island Beach and the Montage Laguna Beach.
A view of Treasure Island Beach and the Montage Laguna Beach taken last September. The beach ranked 18 out of 35 on the Heal the Bay’s Beach Honor Roll list along with nine other beaches in Orange County.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

According to an annual survey of more than 500 beaches across the state of California, Orange County found at least 10 of its own ranking among the top 35 beaches that scored perfect water quality grades year-round.

Heal the Bay, a Santa Monica environmental advocacy group that focuses on coastal waters and watersheds, reported Tuesday that Orange County had the most beaches on this year’s “honor roll” with the majority located near Newport Beach and the Balboa Peninsula. The beach at 52nd/53rd Street in Newport and Treasure Island Beach in Laguna Beach were ranked on the honor roll list — down to 35 from last year’s 42 — for the second year in a row.

The local beaches in the top 35, in order of their ranking on the list were Promontory Point, Crystal Cove, Orange Street, Balboa Beach Pier, Balboa Beach’s The Wedge, 1,000 Steps Beach at 9th Street in Laguna Beach,
North Aliso County Beach and Treasure Island Beach in Laguna.

None of O.C.'s beaches were included on the “beach bummer” list, which includes beaches in San Diego, San Mateo, Santa Cruz, Los Angeles, Humboldt, San Francisco and Santa Barbara counties.

Patrons dine with an ocean view at the Beachcomber Cafe at Crystal Cove State Beach.
Patrons dine with an ocean view at the Beachcomber Cafe at Crystal Cove State Beach in Newport Beach Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The report adds that the honor roll list tends to be dominated by beaches in Southern California because Northern and Central California does not monitor beach quality year-round.

The report card issues grades on a basic A to F grading scale, dependent on routine water inspections conducted by county health officials, sanitation departments and state and tribal agencies.

Water samples are analyzed for three fecal-indicator bacteria that show the presence of harmful pathogens in the water. Three separate grades — summer dry grade for April through October 2020, winter dry grade for November through March 2021 and the wet weather grade from April 2020 to March 2021 — are assigned for each beach.

Orange County overall scored well in the summer and winter dry grades, but scored substandard in the wet weather grade with only 42% of its beaches receiving A and B grades.

As of Thursday afternoon, the Orange County Health Care Agency reported that most of the county’s coastline meets health state standards with exceptions in parts of Huntington Harbor, all of Newport’s Little Corona Beach, near Broadway Creek at Main Beach in Laguna and parts of Dana Point Harbor.

As for Southern California broadly, summer dry grades are said to be lower than average with 94% of the surveyed beaches receiving an A or a B grade. Winter dry grades, by comparison, was higher than the average at around 95% of surveyed beaches with As or Bs.

Beach-goers walk the sands at Thousand Steps beach in Laguna Beach in April this year.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Wet weather grades showed 57% of beaches receiving an A or B grade.

But, researchers cautioned it could be due to low rainfall last year, which may have skewed data as it meant a lower collection of wet weather samples and a likelihood of the ones taken being “first flush” samples, wherein stormwater from the first significant rain event has a high concentration of pollutants from the dry season.

“A day at the beach and the river shouldn’t make anyone sick,” said Shelley Luce, president and chief executive officer of Heal the Bay in a statement issued alongside the report. “With the closures, stress, and uncertainty of the pandemic, it is no surprise that people sought out our local waters in 2020.”

“While we’re thrilled about the excellent water quality across California, our marine ecosystems are still threatened by climate change and other pollution sources,” Luce said. “This is alarming as we expect people to increasingly seek out ocean shorelines and freshwater swimming holes to cool off as temperatures rise.

“Heal the Bay’s Beach Report Card and River Report Card give access to the latest water quality information and are a critical part of our science-based advocacy work in support of strong environmental and public health policies that improve the health and resilience of our ocean, our rivers, and our communities,” she added.

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