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Cowell Beach Drops Off Beach Bummer List: A 10-Year Breakthrough with Improved Water Quality

Post Date:06/30/2020 2:30 PM

RELEASED:  1 p.m., June 30, 2020


Janice Bisgaard, City of Santa Cruz Community Relations Specialist, (831) 226-4076

Lauren Parrino, Save The Waves Coalition Communications Manager, (805) 850-9508 


SANTA CRUZ — For the first time in 10 years, Cowell Beach is not included on Heal the Bay’s “Beach Bummer” list. The environmental nonprofit’s annual Beach Report Card, released today, shows improvement for the iconic City of Santa Cruz beach located west of the Municipal Wharf in weekly levels of ocean bacterial pollution.

This water quality improvement measured by independent analyses reported in 2019 by the City of Santa Cruz Environmental Laboratory and Santa Cruz County Environmental Health Department, derives from combined efforts by City of Santa Cruz staff and Cowell’s Working Group. Their work revealed and addressed the issue of birds roosting on or near the Wharf as a major source of past water quality issues.

“This is the good news that all of us in Santa Cruz have been waiting for,” said Mayor Justin Cummings. “Many thanks to our determined City staff and Cowell’s Working Group for the bird exclusion measures under the Wharf and other efforts that led to this tremendous breakthrough.”

Cowell’s Working Group was launched in 2014 at the direction of the Santa Cruz City Council. It includes representatives from the City, Santa Cruz County, Save The Waves Coalition, Sierra Club and Surfrider Foundation with the mission to study and develop recommendations to improve the water quality at Cowell Beach.

“In late summer 2016 the first steps were taken to ward off birds roosting in the area,” said Nik Strong-Cvetich, Save the Waves executive director and facilitator of Cowell’s Working Group. “The very next year, the number of water quality samples exceeding state standards dropped by over 50 percent indicating that we were on the right track to improve our beloved and famous surfing beach.”

The group, in conjunction with the City’s Wharf crew, oversaw installation of bird screening designed to reduce pigeons and gulls roosting and defecating under the Wharf. This, in combination with routine City cleaning and management practices at the Neary Lagoon outlet and Cowell Beach vault, plus improved Main Beach cleaning and management practices, has radically reduced bacteria count.                                  

“An important action instigated by Cowell’s Working Group that helped with the water quality breakthrough was oversight from a third-party Science Advisory Committee,” said Vice Mayor Donna Meyers. “Cowell’s Working Group left no stone unturned with dedication that fueled the City’s scientific driven solutions.”

Laboratory and Environmental Compliance Manager Akin Babatola has led the City’s scientific efforts which indicate that:

  • The bacterial population at Cowell Beach became controllable once its distribution and concentrations were identified by routine sampling along a gradient at the Wharf and the beach.
  • Cowell Beach bacteria concentrations appeared to be highest under the Wharf, and they tended to get lower upon travelling along the beach away from the Wharf in either direction (east or west) where the birds do not roost and nest.

An important factor in the Cowell Beach water quality improvement has been the effort by the City’s wastewater treatment collections division. In 2014 they installed sliding gates at Neary Lagoon to keep bacteria-infested water there from flowing through a storm outlet vault and onto Cowell Beach during summer months. They also placed a steel plate at the Neary outfall pipe below sea level to divert the flow of bacteria-laden water to the Wastewater Treatment Facility for treatment and disinfection.

The changes in bacteria data measurements which have removed Cowell Beach from the “Beach Bummer” list in 2020 demonstrate the positive power of government working with a focused group of community organizations. The City and Cowell’s Working Group will continue their efforts with plans to conduct a public health study, further monitor water quality and enhance public understanding of the situation at Cowell Beach.

More information on Cowell Beach water quality improvement is available at

Graphics/videos/photos link available to media upon request:

  • Graph of fecal coliforms bacteria concentration 2010-2020 indicates a significant drop in bacterial counts.
  • Graph of Enterococcus bacteria concentration 2010-2020 shows a slight rise in number of exceedances in enterococcus 2018 to 2019, but an overall significant drop in most probable numbers from 2016 to 2017.
  • Videos: “Cowell’s Off the List” and “Coalition for Cowell’s” review Cowell’s Working Group efforts that have led to the beach’s water quality improvement.
  • Pigeons roosting under the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf before netting was installed provided a clue for scientific efforts that have resulted in improved Cowell Beach water quality measurements.
  • Cowell Beach in the City of Santa Cruz has dropped off Heal the Bay’s “Beach Bummer” list for the first time in 10 years with improved water quality.
  • Installation of steel netting to prevent birds from roosting under the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf is thought to be the biggest factor to have improved Cowell Beach water quality measurements.
  • City of Santa Cruz Laboratory and Environmental Compliance Manager Akin Babatola led the scientific efforts that have resulted in vastly improved Cowell Beach water quality measurements.
  • Save The Waves Executive Director Nik Strong-Cvetich led Cowell’s Working Group efforts that have resulted in improved Cowell Beach water quality measurements.
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