If you’re from Santa Cruz, or the greater Northern California Surfing Republic (that’s right, long ago we declared independence from the rest of the state), there’s a decent chance you learned to surf at Cowell’s, the lazy, picturesque right point at the foot of Steamer Lane, popular with kids, beginning surfers, surf schools, and slumming longboarders tired of dealing with crowds further up the point.
It’s also popular with dangerous bacteria, according to a recent report by Heal the Bay, a beach cleanliness monitoring organization. HTB just released its annual “Beach Bummer List” of the most polluted beaches in California. For the third year in a row, Cowell Beach was the dirtiest offender.
Interestingly, Save the Waves, an organization devoted to preserving surf spots worldwide, had been studying what, exactly, was contributing so much pollution at Cowell Beach. You might be surprised to learn that one of the worst offenders is…birds. Specifically, pigeons roosting under the Santa Cruz Wharf, and their waste dropping into the waves below. This has been a problem for other beach towns in the past, and once discovered, steps were taken to discourage bird roosting under piers. Just like that, bacteria counts plummeted.
As you move away from the wharf, in either direction, and away from the roosting birds, bacteria counts dramatically recede.
“We spent the bulk of last year really trying to understand the nature of the problem and developing concrete solutions for the City,” said Save the Waves’ Nik Strong-Cvetich. “We believe the City is now taking the right steps.”
This means attaching screens to the bottom of the Santa Cruz wharf to keep the little feathered beasties from setting up homes there in great numbers, and from using the ocean below as a toilet. Save the Waves, and an organization called “The Cowell’s Working Group” (made up of reps from Surfrider, the Coastal Watershed Council, the Sierra Club, and the City and County of Santa Cruz) are hard on the case to warn the public when bacteria levels are elevated, and to make sure the proper scientists are tracking what improvements are made.
Besides the untidy pigeons, leaky sewer pipes have been identified and fixes are on the way.
According to the Santa Cruz Sentinel, 62 percent of water samples obtained near Cowell Beach in the summer last year were contaminated.
Lots of kids splashing around in that water, and as school has just let out, more are coming.