A stretch of sand popular with tourists and surfers for its mellow waves and up-close views of the Santa Cruz wharf was marked Thursday with the dubious distinction of having the worst water quality on the West Coast -- partly because of bird and human feces.
Heal the Bay, a Santa Monica-based advocacy group that closely monitors beaches in Washington, Oregon and California, placed Cowell Beach at the top of its annual "Beach Bummer" list.
In its annual Beach Report Card, the organization said 90 percent of weekly tests conducted on the beach last summer indicated bacteria levels higher than state standards. The beach has been on the infamous list for the past five years, taking the No. 2 spot in 2012 and 2013.
"We are really putting this information out there for public health," said Amanda Griesbach, water quality scientist with Heal the Bay. "We want to bring attention to these beaches so agencies will look at implementing projects to improve water quality there."
The report is available at www.healthebay.org. Capitola Beach landed in ninth place on the list, having appeared last in 2010 and 2011.
Griesbach acknowledged the city of Santa Cruz's efforts in recent years to identify a source of the pollution, including last month's news that state Water Resources Control Board has awarded the city and county $757,000 in grants to fix sewer and storm drainage deficiencies.
"Santa Cruz definitely gets some props for trying to do things to address the problem," Griesbach said.
Keith Sterling, the city's spokesman, said, "Obviously, this is disappointing news, but we see this as a marathon not as a sprint. We are trying to go step by step and eliminate what could possibly be causing this."
Zeroing in on a cause has been difficult.
Stanford University researchers concluded droppings from sea birds were a contributing factor, though human fecal matter also has been detected at the beach.
Crews determined a single bathroom from a Pacific Avenue residence was draining directly into a gutter connected to a pipe leading to the sand -- it's now been fixed -- and the city believes transients also have defecated on top of storm grates.
While the city has increased safety patrols, cut back vegetation and better secured the grates, efforts are now focused on a stormwater outfall pipe leading to the beach from Neary Lagoon, where Laurel and Bay creeks drain. The city has installed two 76-inch stainless steel slide gates on culverts to block lagoon water from reaching the pipe, where it typically lays stagnant all summer and may have seeped onto the beach.
This summer, the city's Public Works Department will try to pump stagnant water to the nearby wastewater treatment plant and for the first time clean the 5½-foot-high pipe, which is closed in summer but open in the winter to let stormwater flow to the beach.
"Given our intensified and continuing efforts such as the new shut-off gates at Neary Lagoon, the city expects these counts to decrease more and more," associate civil engineer Steve Wolfman said.
It's too early to tell how the top "Beach Bummer" label may affect tourism.
"I probably would just go on to the other side," she said, pointing to adjacent Main Beach fronting the historic Beach Boardwalk. "But being right here could make it bad for businesses."
Bob Shelley, general manager of the Dream Inn located on Cowell Beach, said occupancy has been brisk despite the negative publicity in recent years. Staff will continue to help keep it clear of trash and debris through regular cleanups, he said.
"We pride ourselves in being good stewards of the environment," he said. "We want to run a successful business that provides a good experience for our guests and for the community to showcase all that Santa Cruz has to offer."
Griesbach, the Heal the Bay scientist, said the Beach Bummer label often spurs communities into action. She noted Avalon Beach in Los Angeles County, which ranked No. 1 in 2012 and 2013, got off the list entirely this year after the city made $6 million in sewer infrastructure improvements.
Other beaches in Santa Cruz County received high marks for dry summer conditions based on regular testing data collected by the county's Environmental Health Services division, according to Heal the Bay.
All of the monitored beaches, including Cowell's, received high grades during dry periods in the winter and 85 percent of beaches got high marks during wet weather. But Capitola Beach, tested west of the jetty, got a failing grade even in wet weather for what Heal the Bay called its "chronically polluted beach water.