June 30th 2020

Cowell’s Beach sees continued reduction in bacteria counts despite listing by Heal The Bay

For the first time in 10 years, Cowell Beach is not included on Heal the Bay’s “Beach Bummer” list. The environmental nonprofit’s annual Beach Report Card, released today, shows improvement for the iconic City of Santa Cruz beach located west of the Municipal Wharf in weekly levels of ocean bacterial pollution.

Read the full article.

Community Updates: June 2020


Cowell’s Working Group


Stay up to date with the #CleanCowells campaign. Like the Santa Cruz World Surfing Reserve Facebook Page to follow news and find out about upcoming events.


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. 

In recent years, 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.  

Our Three Key Goals

Improve the public’s understanding of the problem

Improve the scientific knowledge of the problem

Improve the problem through policy action

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.

The Issue

Was California’s “Dirtiest Beach”

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.

Read the full 2019 Beach Report Card (PDF)

Read the full 2018 Beach Report Card (PDF)

Read the full 2017 Beach Report Card (PDF)

Read the full 2016 Beach Report Card (PDF)

Goals & Accomplishments

Goals & Accomplishments as of May 2020:

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

'Heal The Bay' Report Cards

Heal the Bay’s 2018-2019 Annual Beach Report Card

Heal the Bay’s 2017-2018 Annual Beach Report Card

Heal the Bay’s 2016-2017 Annual Beach Report Card

Heal the Bay’s 2015-2016 Annual Beach Report Card

Heal the Bay’s 2014-2015 Annual Beach Report Card

Weekly Water Quality Reports

Surfrider Santa Cruz Blue Water Task Force

Santa Cruz County Water Quality Reports

Community Updates


Studies and Resources

Final Report to Council


Presentation on Findings and Recommendations

Know the Facts Behind Cowell’s Bacteria Problem