East Beach at Mission Creek was recently recognized as a “beach bummer” for its levels of fecal indicator bacterial pollution and assigned a D letter grade classification. What does this mean? Well, it’s complicated, but a lot of progress has actually been made in recent years researching and improving water quality in Santa Barbara.
Fecal coliform bacteria can originate from a number of sources, including problematic sewer lines, animals, and homeless populations. In 2012, Channelkeeper’s enforcement efforts inspired the City of Santa Barbara to invest more than $20 million over the next seven years to repair 34 miles of leaky sewer pipes, resulting in a 91 percent reduction in raw sewage overflows by 2019. Fewer sewage leaks mean cleaner creeks and a healthier ocean.
In recent years, the Santa Barbara City Creeks Division has partnered with UC Santa Barbara to closely study the sources of fecal bacteria contamination at local beaches including East Beach at Mission Creek. DNA markers were used to differentiate contamination between human and animal sources. Many birds regularly congregate near the location where beach testing is done, and the UCSB study determined that fecal bacteria exceedances during dry weather had the strongest correlation to the presence of seagulls. Human DNA markers were also found consistently in ultra-low levels but were not correlated to fecal bacteria exceedances. The presence of swimmers and offshore sewer outfalls were identified as a potential source of these markers.
The results of this study don’t mean that fecal bacteria testing doesn’t matter. It does. There’s no smoke without fire. That said, humans didn’t necessarily cause the fire, nor should we always put it out. Fecal indicator testing may be an imperfect tool, but it can identify areas where more research is needed to identify sources and fix problems that we can and should actually control.
This is exactly what the City of Santa Barbara has done for many years and it should be lauded for its commitment to investigating sources of fecal contamination to local watersheds and beaches. From DNA testing to sewage sniffing dogs, the City’s Creeks Division has done more to sleuth out local sources of fecal contamination than any municipality we are aware of.
And problems do exist. Channelkeeper’s own water quality investigations several years ago led to the discovery of two instances where sewer lines from buildings were “accidentally” directly plumbed into the city storm drain system rather than the sewer system. The city promptly corrected these violating properties, and its own numerous investigations and stormwater program have surely resulted in measurable improvements to water quality over the years.
Fecal bacteria from animals also may not be something to simply ignore. Animal waste may carry less probability, compared to human waste, of making a swimmer sick, but that doesn’t mean anyone wants to swim in it. And fecal contamination from animal sources is often linked to human sources like equestrian operations, livestock, and manure applications on farms. These sources of contamination are problems in many areas.
More work needs to be done to continue improving water quality in Santa Barbara, but the recent D grade at East Beach also doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t ever get in the water there. Beachgoers can minimize exposure to contamination by avoiding swimming near creek mouths, areas where animals congregate, and up to three days following rain events that produce runoff. Community members can also continue to support the work of the City’s Creeks Division and investments in Santa Barbara’s sewer infrastructure to eliminate the risk of overflows.
If you would like to keep track of water quality testing results at local beaches, Channelkeeper publishes county water quality testing data for 20 Santa Barbara County beaches each week on the SwimGuide. Check out the Swim Guide at: https://www.theswimguide.org/find
Ben Pitterle is science and policy director for Santa Barbara Channelkeeper.