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How Cabrillo Beach Got So Clean

The San Pedro beach had some of the most contaminated water in California as recently as last year

Buried amid all the data sets and letter grades of Heal the Bay's annual report card on the water quality at California's beaches is a true underdog story. San Pedro's Cabrillo Beach—a longtime fixture on the "Beach Bummers" list of beaches with the worst dry weather water quality—turned things around this year and ended up with a stunning A grade (up from a D the year before). That's not quite the highest mark of A-plus, but it's still a very impressive reversal that has come as a surprise to water officials and scientists alike. "We’re thinking of popping a bottle of champagne," Heal the Bay scientist Leslie Griffin tells the LA Times.

What made the water so much cleaner this year? Well, the most obvious answer is the dud of an El Niño that failed to bring badly needed rainwater to Southern California. Of course, every cloud has its silver lining, and the upside of a drought that threatens the viability of the nation's second-largest metropolitan area is that it's making area beaches a whole lot safer for swimming. The most common source of ocean water pollution is runoff from storm drains, which can drive bacteria counts way up close to shore. With very little rainfall this year, much less runoff ended up in the ocean, and a solid 97 percent of beaches in Southern California received an A or B grade from Heal the Bay.

Still, other SoCal beaches, like the Santa Monica Pier and Mother's Beach in Marina del Rey, made it back onto the ignominious "Bummers" list. What is the secret to Cabrillo Beach's success? Could it be covered trash bins? Litter sweeps? A no diaper rule? Nope. Those measures have all seen limited success. Instead, according to Griffin, the sharp drop in bacteria count may have a lot to do with a system of thin wires hanging over the beach that reflect light and help to scare off birds.

That might seem like a ridiculously simple solution, and Griffin tells the Times that the reasons for the improvement in water quality at Cabrillo are probably a bit more complicated, but it appears these wires have played the biggest role. Birds, as it turns out, are a potent source of bacteria at local beaches—so much so that Orange County officials went so far as to place fake coyotes in the sand at Poche Beach to keep them away.

In spite of the Cinderella-like transformation at Cabrillo Beach, Heal the Bay is still quietly advising swimmers to think twice before going in the water. The inner part of the beach is closed off by a manmade structure that prevents water from circulating through the area. Ironically, this setup, designed to keep the water fairly calm for swimmers, is the main reason that these swimmers run the risk of getting sick from contaminated water. Still, after years of water so dirty the city considered making the beach dog-friendly to keep swimmers away, Cabrillo Beach is suddenly looking better than ever.