Woolsey Fire Blamed for Malibu’s Dirty Beaches

For the last five years, Malibu beaches received “A” and “B” grades for winter and dry weather on the Heal the Bay annual Beach Report Card. This year, however, three of the four Malibu beaches fell off the list—marking Malibu’s lowest grade since 2014-15.

Last year, Escondido Creek received an “A+” for all seasons; this year it received “C” and “B” letter grades. Solstice Canyon at Dan Blocker County Beach dropped from an “A” to an “F” during the wet weather. Both areas were ravaged by the Woolsey Fire.

Malibu did successfully avoid making the infamous Top 10 “Beach Bummer” list in this year’s report, although five of the top 10 bummers were located in Southern California. These are ranked the most polluted beaches in the state based on levels of harmful bacteria. 

This list is conducted by Heal the Bay, an environmental nonprofit organization that researches the coastal waters and watersheds in greater Los Angeles.

The report is based on levels of weekly bacterial pollution in the ocean. According to the report, researchers say that was likely due to higher-than-average rainfall—partnered with the effects of the November fire.

The beaches that received “F” letter grades for wet weather were: Surfrider Beach, Leo Carrillo State Beach, Encinal Canyon at El Matador State Beach, Zuma Beach, Paradise Cove Pier, Puerco State Beach and Malibu Pier.

Researchers investigated the Woolsey Fire and the impact on the Malibu beaches and found that the water quality grades decreased dramatically due to vegetation loss and infrastructure damage. In early November 2018, the Woolsey Fire burned 96,949 acres of land and destroyed 1,500 structures across Malibu, Calabasas and Thousand Oaks. 

Luke Ginger, Heal the Bay water quality scientist, said after the analysis, the nonprofit believes the Woolsey Fire is responsible for the lower grade Malibu received this past winter.

“When a wildfire hits an area, it burns up all the vegetation,” Ginger said. “The soil is less stable and it increases the amount of runoff that occurs when it rains. The rain picks up all the contaminants in the soil, such as bacteria, and there’s nothing to impede the flow like the vegetation.

“We don’t know how long this effect will last, but we’re going to keep an eye on it and do further analysis,” Ginger added.

City of Malibu deputy building official Andrew Sheldon said in an effort to observe the effects from the fire, government agencies evaluated the properties that were burned and are making an effort to remove the debris and prevent erosion. 

With the extra funding provided by Measure W, Sheldon said they are able to provide additional inspections, including stormwater controls, throughout the year. 

In addition to monitoring the system and repairs, according to the city’s website, the enhanced watershed management program implements projects that address non-storm water runoff prevention, storm runoff retention, pollution prevention, flood control and water supply.

To be considered on the “Honor Roll,” a beach must be monitored weekly all year and must receive a letter grade “A” for all seasons and weather conditions. Pena Creek at Las Tunas County Beach received an “A+” for all seasons and was placed on this year’s honor roll—Malibu’s only honor roll beach. “Summer dry” samples are taken between April and October and “winter dry” are taken between November and March. 

According to the 29th annual Beach Report Card, scores were down statewide. Fifty-four percent of California beaches received an A or B during wet weather. It is an eight percentage point decrease from the state’s five-year average. During the dry winter season, 87 percent of beaches received an A or B grade.

Some beaches are more vulnerable to higher levels of pollution. Open beaches have better water quality than enclosed or storm drain, streams or river beaches. Researchers advise people to avoid contact with water for at least three days following a significant rain event. 

In addition to monitoring the beaches, Heal the Bay released its first annual River Report Card. This report acknowledges the water quality and bacterial pollution in areas within the Los Angeles River watershed, Malibu Creek Watershed and the San Gabriel River Watershed. 

Heal the Bay suggests avoiding risky water quality at California beaches by checking beachreportcard.org for the latest water quality grades. They advise to avoid shallow, enclosed beaches with poor water circulation and to swim at least 100 yards away from flowing storm drains, creeks and piers. 

As for the public support, Ginger recommends attending council meetings and learning what utility companies and politicians are doing in regard to water quality.

“A day at the beach shouldn’t make anyone sick,” Dr. Shelley Luce, president and CEO of Heal the Bay, said in a statement published in the report. “We are glad to see water quality improving at some beaches, but there are no guarantees.”

More research will be collected in order to measure how long the impacts of the fire will last.

Samantha Bravo
Samantha Bravo
Samantha Bravo is an inspiring photojournalist based in Los Angeles California. She began her journalism career at Pierce College Media Arts Department. Twitter @samanthavbravo

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