This weekend, antsy Californians are projected to hit the road in record numbers for a newly unfettered Fourth of July holiday. And, as usual, many of us are headed for the coast.
Last year around this time, our relationship with the beach was a little complicated. Amid an uptick in coronavirus cases, Gov. Gavin Newsom had implored us to avoid places, including many of the state’s most popular Independence Day destinations, where there were likely to be crowds. Beaches had been closed for that reason earlier in the year.
But as the months marched on it became clear that California’s beaches were some of the state’s most important respites — from oppressive, dangerous heat inland, from the monotony of our homes. Many beaches were soon reopened, with restrictions in some places.
This underscored the urgency of keeping the state’s waterways clean, said Shelley Luce, the president and chief executive of the environmental advocacy group Heal the Bay.
“We’ve always been dependent on our beaches as open space, as a place to relax,” she recently told me. “In 2020, they were open and available, and people were seeking out that connection to nature.”
Heal the Bay this week released its 31st annual Beach Report Card and its third River Report Card. The grades aim to help Californians better understand the water quality in the places where they may be swimming. The report assigns A through F letter grades based on bacterial pollution levels to some 500 beaches, almost all in California, and 28 freshwater recreation sites in Los Angeles County.
The findings paint a mixed picture of our drought-wracked summer. While the vast majority of beaches had excellent water quality in summer 2020, it was most likely because there was no rain to wash pollution into the sea.
“The first rain washes so much pollution in, and in what used to be our normal weather pattern, each one was less polluting than the last one,” Luce said. “Now there’s weeks or months before the next flush, so pollution builds up again.”
In other words, we’re facing more extreme fluctuations in water quality, which could then tip into dangerous levels of pollution more often.
“We have to pay a lot of attention to our wet weather runoff,” Luce said.
And, she said, the drought was likely to result in frequent and severe wildfires, which can lead to ash that pollutes nearby water for months afterward.
Still, it’s not all dire news. Luce said that during Heal the Bay’s three decades of putting out the report card, leaders have taken steps to mitigate pollution, like diverting storm drains away from beaches. In places like Los Angeles County, they’ve started longer-term projects aimed at restoring wetlands and green space so that storm water doesn’t flow straight from urban areas into the ocean.
Heal the Bay also added grades for beaches in Tijuana this year, she said, in hopes of drawing attention to pollution there.
So which beaches deserve extra attention? And where should you be careful about getting in the water?
Here are this year’s 10 Beach Bummers:
1. Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge at the Tijuana River mouth in San Diego County
2. Erckenbrack Park in San Mateo County
3. Capitola Beach, west of the jetty in Santa Cruz County
4. Gull Park in San Mateo County
5. Marina “Mother’s” Beach, between the lifeguard tower and boat dock in Los Angeles County
6. Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge, north of the Tijuana River in San Diego County
7. Clam Beach County Park at Strawberry Creek in Humboldt County
8. Marlin Park in San Mateo County
9. Candlestick Point at Windsurfer Circle in San Francisco
10. East Beach at Mission Creek in Santa Barbara County
Here’s what else to know today
California Today will be off on Monday for the Fourth of July holiday. Have a great weekend, and stay safe.
California Today goes live at 6:30 a.m. Pacific time weekdays. Tell us what you want to see: CAtoday@nytimes.com. Were you forwarded this email? Sign up for California Today here and read every edition online here.
Jill Cowan grew up in Orange County, graduated from U.C. Berkeley and has reported all over the state, including the Bay Area, Bakersfield and Los Angeles — but she always wants to see more. Follow along here or on Twitter.