By Daniel Correia
For 51 days between mid-June and early August, Cowell’s Beach was home to unsafe levels of bacteria in the ocean, prompting the County of Santa Cruz to post signs warning patrons against the potentially dangerous bacteria levels.
Cowell’s was not alone in its potentially harmful waters, as beaches up and down the Santa Cruz coast put up signs warning beachgoers of the various stomach illnesses and skin infections the bacteria could cause.
Steve Peters, the water quality specialist for Santa Cruz County Health Services, is in charge of testing the waters and determining whether or not they are safe for people to swim in.
"We look for these indicator bacteria," Peters said. "It’s found usually in low levels and when they go up, then we know there’s a problem. We get about 60 samples a week from different sites."
Peters said that most of the bacteria at Cowell’s comes from rotting kelp, which affects the water from under the pier to about 25 feet to the west of it. The bacteria that decomposes the kelp is not safe for human contact. Though not the primary culprits, fecal matter from birds, car oil, carelessly discarded cigarette butts, and other urban runoff only exacerbate the situation.
The three kinds of bacteria that the Santa Cruz Environmental Services tests for are E. coli, total coliform, and enterococcus. These bacterium can be found in human and animal waste and could cause symptoms ranging from mild skin rashes to more severe gastrointestinal illnesses, skin or eye infections, and respiratory problems.
Last year, Cowell’s was closed for 45 days due to unsafe water. In 2004, the beach was closed 52 days, and in 2003 it was closed 93 days.
Santa Cruz relies heavily on its beaches to boost the local economy. Tourists gather in throngs to swim and surf on the world-famous waves, especially in the summer.
The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, which neighbors Cowell’s Beach, is also negatively affected by the beach closures, according to Boardwalk Publicist Brigid Fuller.
"In the big picture it’s not good for business, for the Boardwalk, or the beach," Fuller said. Some local businesses even complained about the warning signs, according to Peters.
"I’ve had surf instructors call to remove the signs," Peters said. "If people see the water is unsafe, they’ll go somewhere else."
Overall, the risks associated with bacteria levels in the water have left business in Santa Cruz largely unaffected.
AJ Pappas of Cowell’s Beach Surfshop sees the advisories as merely cautionary at best.
"Business was affected maybe a little," Pappas said. "But I still go out there when it’s like that."
Though swimming in the contaminated water may not be totally safe, Peters cited that the beaches were not officially closed this summer.
"It’s not a quarantine, it’s a warning sign," Peters said. "What people do with the information is up to them."