June 27th 2019

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

Cowell’s Beach once again finds itself on Heal the Bay’s ‘Beach Bummer’ list, but experts in the Cowell’s Working Group have noted a long-term reduction in overall exceedances of state water quality standards and concentrations of bacteria. 

Read the full article.

Community Updates: March 2017


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.

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 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 2019:

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
  • Increased community and financial support


  • 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

Immediate Priorities

  1. Continue Group Facilitation and Project Management
  2. Create Third-Party Science Advisory Committee
  3. Put in screening, other modifications to reduce pigeon/gull roosting under the wharf near the beach (regulatory permits may be required)
  4. Convene public meetings about the group’s goals, with input from a technical oversight team
  5. Create and maintain updates on Clean Cowell website to share basic information, data and updates
  6. Continue press release updates
  7. Maintain citizen science opportunities for monitoring the issue
  8. Maintain adequate signage in the area**
  9. Maintain sewer inspections and upgrades, produce lateral ordinance recommendations
  10. Conduct nighttime and early morning patrols on beach and under wharf with an increased police presence

'Heal The Bay' Report Cards

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

Studies and Resources

Final Report to Council


Presentation on Findings and Recommendations

Know the Facts Behind Cowell’s Bacteria Problem