Each year, San Mateo County beaches are called out for reporting high levels of contamination by nonprofit Heal the Bay’s California state “Beach Bummers” list. While this is nothing new, this year, for the first time, Fitzgerald Marine Reserve in Moss Beach topped the list.
Even San Mateo County park ranger Rob Cala was caught by surprise. He said it’s not uncommon that contaminants wash in, putting local beaches on the list. But for the
protected reserve, which has been closed to public access since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March, water quality normally isn’t a concern.
“I almost didn’t believe it,” Cala said.
Cala said he hasn’t seen the reported water quality issues affect the local wildlife and ecosystem. In fact, he said, it’s been a successful year for seal pupping and the algae blooms residents report seeing offshore can actually be a sign of a healthy ocean environment. To him, the yearly list can be an opportunity to continue education efforts aimed at mitigating impacts on the natural Coastside environment and to remind residents to pick up litter and dog waste.
The problem doesn’t stop outside Fitzgerald’s borders. The marine reserve is just one of six county beaches, including three beaches around Pillar Point Harbor, that made the list this year.
San Mateo County Harbor District Commissioner Ed Larenas said this problem is not new.
“It’s not surprising, but it is a problem,” said Larenas, who also works with the local chapter of the Surfrider
Foundation, a nonprofit organization that works to protect and preserve the world's oceans. “From my point of view it is a community problem.”
The Harbor District funds the San Mateo County Resource Conservation District to map the entire storm and sewage drain system
and works with the RCD to find the contamination sources. Larenas said the contamination problem is a result of the cumulative impacts of upstream inputs, and San Mateo County’s Natural Resource Manager Hannah Ormshaw agreed.
“One of the issues is we get input from the entire watershed,” Larenas said. “There are several creeks that go into Pillar Point Harbor and storm drains that feed into it. So all those factors contribute to high bacterial counts in the water.”
Ormshaw said when the problem was discovered in 2002, the California Water Quality Control Board and other agencies began developing a water quality improvement plan for the area. The plan has been in place since 2017. On county land, that means working to minimize waste flow into the creek and ocean through drainage and vegetation projects and expanding education about cleaning up waste. Ormshaw said more testing would be needed to identify exactly which upstream sources are the biggest contributors to the water quality problem.
“It relies on everyone in the watershed to do various ongoing mitigation to try and keep their own individual inputs low,” Ormshaw said.
The solution from Coastside actors, Larenas said, would have to be an expensive one requiring coordination among multiple agencies, including the Sewer Authority Mid-Coastside.
“The infrastructure to do that here would be a big project,” he said.
RCD is trying to mitigate some of the health issues by covering up storm drains that lead into the harbor for the summer. This will keep
some bacteria out as restaurants and others wash contaminants out into the parking lots. Other efforts made in the last few years include cleaning and inspecting the Harbor District’s stormwater systems, replacing broken stormwater pipes, installing manhole covers and continuing to collect data.
The biggest contributing factor is runoff into the watershed leading to the harbor and its beaches.
“I think it is going to be a long process to change how runoff goes into the harbor,” Larenas said. “It is going to take all stakeholders to work together. Up until now that has not happened.”