Clean Cowells

VICTORY:  A cherished Santa Cruz beach and premiere longboard break, Cowells, once faced longstanding water quality issues but has been improved thanks to community dedication.

Cowells has successfully been removed from the infamous “Beach Bummers” list. Our commitment to address the issue led to the formation of the Cowells Working Group in partnership with the City of Santa Cruz. Major improvements have been made and Cowells has since been removed from the Top Ten list altogether after years of hard work, trial and error, and dedicated scientific research.


Cowell Beach is nestled at the heart of the City of Santa Cruz’ Coastline and is a cherished natural resource for its residents and thousands of annual visitors. One of the world’s premier longboard surf breaks, and a designated World Surfing Reserve, Cowell Beach is rich in cultural, historical and economic value. 

However, it had previously taken on the dubious distinction of being the “dirtiest beach” in California, according to a series of water quality reports by Heal the Bay.  

Like many of California’s urban beaches, Cowell Beach’s water quality has been compromised by high bacteria counts (fecal coliform and enterococcus) for many years, consistently landing it on Heal the Bay’s “Beach Bummer” list in recent years.

Heal the Bay’s annual scorecard report, which reviews beach water quality up and down the California coastline, had assigned Cowell Beach the most polluted beach in California for 2014, 2015 and 2016.

In 2020, community efforts led to the removal of the cherished beach from the list altogether.

Cowells Makes it off the list!
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Learn About the Working Group
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More Info & Resources

Cowell Water Quality Reports

View and explore the most up-to-date reports from Surfrider Santa Cruz Blue Water Task Force and Santa Cruz County.

Please note: Surfrider SC recently stopped taking samples at Cowells due to COVID-19.

Heal The Bay Report Cards

CWG seeks to eliminate all human-derived sources of bacteria capable of causing human illness and reduce naturally occurring sources of bacteria to the maximum extent practicable.


  • Reduce bacteria counts at Cowell Beach through policy and stewardship actions
  • Increase public understanding of Cowell Beach issue
  • Improve scientific understanding of Cowell Beach issue


  • Created new monitoring location
  • Implemented new testing, data sharing,  and conclusions
  • Increased public outreach and communication
  • Installed infrastructure that has led to improved water quality


  • Cowell Beach bacteria are likely their highest under the wharf, and they tend to get significantly lower as one travels along the beach away from the wharf in either direction (East or West).
  • Cowell Beach bacteria along the wharf are significantly lower after only the first couple of hundred feet where the birds do not roost and nest.
  • There were no sewage-associated bacteria detected in any of the 25 samples taken along the wharf, as indicated by caffeine measurements taken during the study to establish the distribution of bacteria along the wharf.
  • DNA analyses of the bacteria along Cowell Beach indicate they are not from domestic sources and are not associated with human health risks

2020 Objectives

  1. Continue Group Facilitation and Project Management
  2. Conduct epidemiological study to understand public health risk
  3. Ensure adequate signage to enhance public understanding
  4. Maintain sewer inspections and upgrades, produce lateral ordinance recommendations

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