15 October 2009

Beach Water Quality Information

Everybody poops. And in California, when it rains hard, the poop too often ends up in ocean where we surf. After the first storm of the rainy season deluged the area on Tuesday, there were several sewer overflows in San Francisco, which lead to the posting of Ocean Beach as unsafe for water contact due to contamination. The standard caution applied elsewhere along the coast: stay out of the water until 72 hours after a rain, due to likely high bacteria levels. Indeed, the water looked dirty brown, some said "poopy," as evidenced by SurfingStokes's photo below.

Of course it shouldn't be this way. Our infrastructure should contain all our waste from both the sewers and the streets. But sadly, this hasn't been enough of a priority, and the oceans continue to serve as our toilet and our trash can. So what's a surfer to do, especially since it seems good waves often follow on the heels of polluted runoff producing storms?

The 72-hour rule seems to me to be arbitrary. As an engineer, I just know the officials issuing that caution are adding a safety factor, probably a large one, onto the actually requisite time. Perhaps 24-48 hours is sufficient in the usual case. But also unfortunately, water testing is not as frequent as an ocean-user would like. Sampling, and reporting, are spotty.

But limited as it is, here's where to check the water quality at NorCal beaches:

San Francisco. Shoreline bacteria are routinely monitored by the Public Utilities Commission at 14 stations around the perimeter of San Francisco where water contact recreation may occur.

San Mateo County
. Beach Water Quality provides reports for a handful of coastal states. SurfriderSMC test local breaks and occasionally tweets results.

Santa Cruz
. The County of Santa Cruz Environmental Health Service provides water quality information to concerned swimmers/surfers to alert them to areas that may be contaminated by fecal indicator bacteria.

Remember that the reports at all these sites are often out-of-date and may not reflect current water quality. Ultimately, you have to be the judge, and if it smells or looks like your toilet bowl, best to stay on the sand. If you do go in when the water's sketchy, try not to swallow, and take a shower as soon as you're done. Just don't get yourself sick surfing sick waves.


  1. I remember one year we had a huge easterly storm and a similar flush out of the estuary where there are still mostly septic tanks instead of the deep sewerage that exists elsewhere. The easterly swell was mega and awesome and we just couldn't stay out of the water. I remember paddling out, it was brown as you described everywhere, it really stunk, and I had to take my legrope off because the seawed was as deep as the water until you got out the back. I actually thought it as quite dangerous because you couldn't really swim through it. There we were half submerged dead sheep as well! But we had an awesome time and didn't get sick which was pure luck I reckon.

  2. Dead sheep?! And I thought our water quality was bad. You're lucky you didn't get sick from that uber-nasty water.

  3. The dead sheep were an anomaly. It doesn't usually happen but some of them must have drowned as the rivers upstream got faster and deeper than usual. Yes, crazy what we will do for a surf...