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Paradise Cove is one sunny spot in an otherwise mixed report card for water quality at regional beaches

May 26, 2010 | 11:13 am
Paradise Cove may finally be living up to its name, at least when it comes to the water.

Over the years the Malibu beach had become known as much for its poor water quality as for being featured in the 1970s television series "The Rockford Files."

This year, however, the gains made in the health of Paradise Cove is one of the pieces of good news in the Beach Report Card released Wednesday by Heal the Bay.

Last year, Paradise Cove received an F. This year, the beach is passing with a respectable B, which means it rarely exceeded standards for bacteria that indicate the presence of illness-causing pathogens.

Seventy-nine percent of Los Angeles County's 86 beaches received A's or Bs, compared to 70% last year. This year's figure is also well above the six-year average of 73%.

“It wasn't the driest of years, and yet we're really starting to see some substantial improvements,” said Heal the Bay President Mark Gold.

But the county has continued to dominate on the list of the state's most polluted beaches, with five Los Angeles County locations ranking among the 10 worst and seven beaches receiving year-round Fs.

Heal the Bay credits the rising grades at some beaches to a number of projects that divert and treat urban runoff to keep bacteria and virus-laden water from reaching the ocean and infecting swimmers with skin rashes, sinus infections and gastrointestinal viruses.

Several Malibu-area beaches saw marked improvements, including Paradise Cove, where a new treatment plant diverts water from a creek that used to flow directly into the ocean.

The beach at Marie Canyon in Malibu, which used to rank among the most polluted in the state, scoring an F last year, made a significant leap to B and C grades this year.

Los Angeles County officials attribute those water quality gains to a diversion system that zaps dry-weather runoff with ultraviolet rays to kill the bacteria before they reach the ocean.

“We've seen substantial increases since that system came online,” said Kerjon Lee, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works watershed management division, which administers about 20 runoff diversion projects from Long Beach to Malibu.

But in reality the results of the 20th annual report on beach water quality by the Santa Monica nonprofit are a mixed bag.

Despite the uptick in overall beach quality, Los Angeles County stubbornly claimed the bulk of the list of “Beach Bummers,” claiming five of the top 10 worst spots.

Avalon Harbor Beach continued its reign as the worst beach in the state, topping the list for the third year in a row.

While Orange County as a whole had terrific water quality, with about 97% of beaches scoring A or B, Poche Beach in San Clemente remained a glaring exception, dropping to the fourth worst in the state.

The report, which analyzes monitoring data at 326 beaches in California, did have some other highlights; 76 beaches, for instance, attained perfect scores, meaning they never exceeded standards.

“It shatters an urban legend that beaches can’t be clean 100% of the time,” Gold said.

Yet there are other uncertainties on the horizon. After Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger cut funding to the state's $1-million beach water testing program through a line-item veto in 2008, counties have been making up the shortfall with a combination of stopgap measures, state and federal grants, and some even using volunteer water samplers.

But most of those grants run out at the end of the year, leading some health agencies to brace for months with no testing at all.

“The consequences of that are tremendous,” Gold said. “We could literally lose half of our beach monitoring in 2011 unless another funding source is identified.”

-- Tony Barboza

Photo: Beachcombers take a morning stroll along Paradise Cove in Malibu. The annual Heal the Bay report notes that Paradise Cove has gone from an F grade to a B. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times

"Beach Bummers" (Top 10 beaches with the worst water quality)

1. Avalon Harbor Beach on Santa Catalina Island (Los Angeles County)

2. Cowell Beach – at the wharf (Santa Cruz County)

3. Cabrillo Beach harborside (Los Angeles County)

4. Poche Beach (Orange County)

5. Santa Monica Municipal Pier (Los Angeles County)

6. Colorado Lagoon (Los Angeles County)

7. Baker Beach at Lobos Creek (San Francisco County)

8. Capitola Beach -- west of the jetty (Santa Cruz County)

9. Vacation Isle North Cove Beach in Mission Bay (San Diego County)

10. Sunset Boulevard and Pacific Coast Highway at Santa Ynez Drain (Los Angeles County)

(Source: Heal the Bay)

Read the full report at healthebay.org/2010BRC