Yacht Club Beach
The Harbor District says outside contamination can be found in areas of Pillar Point Harbor on the beaches from Yacht Club to Barbara's Fishtrap in Princeton on Friday, Dec. 4, 2020. Adam Pardee / Review

An attempt to clean up Coastside beaches within the San Mateo County Harbor District may be muddied by misunderstanding between the regional water board and the Harbor District.

Earlier this month, the Harbor District pushed back against the California Regional Water Quality Control Board’s request that the district take action to control possible contamination by boats, Porta-Potties, restaurants and other sources from within the harbor.

The request is part of a larger implementation orchestrated by the water board that aims to control bacteria levels at the beaches at Pillar Point Harbor and Venice Beach, where tests in recent years showed unacceptable contamination levels.

Harbor District General Manager Jim Pruett said there was no evidence to suggest that boats or any of the Harbor District’s sewage collection systems were sources of the bacterial contamination at the beaches. The Harbor District backed its claim with studies conducted by the San Mateo Resource Conservation District, which echoed Pruett’s sentiments in a separate letter to the water board.

Nancy Reyering, Harbor District board president, said she was surprised by claims “that the contamination levels are the fault of district operations, that we are able to cure it on our own and that we have a lion’s share of the responsibility to do so.”

Janet O’Hara, planning supervisor at the regional water board, said there has been a misunderstanding.

O’Hara said the Harbor District is not the only agency it tapped to create an implementation plan as part of its cleanup efforts.

“It’s not just the Harbor District. We’ve spoken to all the entities,” O’Hara said.

The Harbor District falls in a list of eight “implementing parties” each of which the water board tasked with creating a plan around specific sources of potential contamination that falls within their jurisdiction.

O’Hara clarified why sources, like the dumping from boats and the Harbor District’s sewage systems are included. Sources simply need to pose the risk of potential of contamination even if they are not actively contributing to contamination, she said.

“It takes one boat in the future to contribute to bacteria,” O’Hara said. “Basically, including it in the plan is a placeholder to be sure that the actions the Harbor District takes to educate boaters continue.”

While O’Hara recognizes that boats and the harbor’s sewage system may not be an active problem, they will remain in the plan. And it will be up to the Harbor District whether any particular source requires additional action.

Because the Harbor District, in partnership with the Resource Conservation District, has taken steps to improve water quality in the harbor, both agencies want clarification from the water board about how to best reflect these actions in an implementation plan. For example, how should the work already done on stormwater pipes, one of which was coated in fats, oils and grease, be counted?

Given the misunderstanding, O’Hara said her staff will be happy to meet with the harbor officials, especially to clarify that the Harbor District is not solely responsible for controlling the bacteria at the beaches. She understands that it’s an issue that involves the larger watershed that drains into the harbor.

Research conducted by the RCD identified a few sources of contamination it thinks the water board should pay attention to, and they’re farther inland: stormwater lines in need of repair, clogged lines, wildlife waste in creeks, and pet waste in upland areas.

Pruett cited the conservation district’s research at the Harbor District’s Nov. 18 meeting to point out that the main sources of contamination lie outside the Harbor District’s jurisdiction. For example, pet waste enters some of the local creeks but ultimately drains into the harbor. Addressing the problem falls within San Mateo County’s jurisdiction, he said.

The water board says it is tapping the county, the Harbor District, and the other six agencies to play their part in controlling the bacterial levels at the beaches.

“They all contribute to Pillar Point Harbor and Venice Beach. It’s a group effort,” O’Hara said.

Harbor Commissioner Reyering proposed that the best next step would be to convene a roundtable with the other agencies to discuss the issue. Pruett said he plans on revisiting the roundtable idea with the Harbor District board in the coming weeks.

The issue will be taken up again at the water board public hearing on Feb. 10, 2021, when it will hear testimony on the proposal.

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