The San Mateo Resource Conservation District held a Midcoast Water Quality Webinar last week to answer community questions on water quality and pollution.

The presentation was led by RCD’s Executive Director Kellyx Nelson, water quality program manager Noah Katz, and conservation project coordinator Bryanna Whitney. The hourlong webinar was set up as a response to community interest in water quality from previous RCD meetings. There were 150 people registered online to attend the April 21 event.

“We have some good knowledge on this topic, particularly locally,” said Nelson at the start of the presentation. “Our goal today is just to make sure that what we know, you know.”

The Resource Conservation District is a special district, created by the community to meet resource conservation needs. It spent the last decade looking at water quality in creeks, beaches, oceans and other forms of water in the environment and used collected data to inform their presentation.

“Everything we do on land has water quality impacts down the street,” said Katz, who explained the concept of a watershed — an area of land that shares the same drainage.

During the dry season, contaminants from overflowing trash cans, car washes and other everyday activities sit on the surface of the land. But after the year's first big rain, these same contaminants are washed off into creeks, beaches and stormwater systems. RCD’s First Flush program discovered that in San Mateo County, bacteria levels were above recommended levels in all of their sites.

RCD dedicated time toward discussing bacteria in beaches, particularly fecal indicator bacteria from animals like horses and dogs. Samples from watersheds such as Pillar Point Harbor were collected to determine chronic sources of bacteria. Through its research, RCD concluded that for beaches in the inner and outer harbor, dogs on beaches and human sources such as homeless encampments and RV dumping were not likely to be chronic sources. Nelson added that dog waste was found to be an issue from the upland watershed, but not at beaches.

At San Vincente Creek it was found that horses were far from the only source of bacteria on beaches like Fitzgerald Marine Reserve. Rather, deer, cows, dogs and humans also served as sources of contamination. At San Pedro Creek, which discharges to Pacifica State Beach, similar conclusions were made about the diversity of bacterial sources.

“There’s not one single smoking gun,” said Katz. “It’s complicated, and it takes many, many solutions for the many, many sources of bacteria.”

Water quality in San Mateo County beaches has long been a concern among residents, but was recently brought into the limelight through Heal the Bay’s 2020 “Top 10 Beach Bummers in California” list. San Mateo beaches made up 6 out of the 10 spots. RCD shared its work to address likely chronic sources of bacteria, which included replacing broken stormwater pipes, removing oils and grease, and installing pet waste stations.

The webinar ended with a “Myth or Maybe” segment, where attendees were polled on whether statements about water quality were with or without basis. Some statements included: “Bacteria in our creeks and beaches can make people sick” (Myth: Fecal indicator bacteria cannot make people sick, but rather indicate where illness-inducing viruses and pathogens might live.) and “Dogs are the primary source of bacteria in our area.” (Myth: Dogs are a source of bacteria, but are not the singular primary source).

“The thing about dogs is that they’re a really controllable source of bacteria,” said Nelson. “Why not clean up after your pets?”

Some next steps for RCD included investigating whether human bacteria is chronic in stormwater systems, determining whether bacteria originates from wildlife and identifying hotspots for cross contamination across private and public spaces. RCD encouraged attendees to play their part in picking up pet waste or cleaning up their backyards before large rain storms.

“It’s a diffuse issue, and there are certain things that you and I as individuals can do to try and help the problem as well,” said Katz.

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