There's 'poop in the water' at America's dirtiest beaches

Chris Woodyard

Editor's note: After this story was published July 23, Environment America, which produced the study, said it found inaccuracies due to calculation and methodology errors. At that time, USA TODAY explained the problem in an editor's note and deleted the chart that accompanied the story. On Aug. 2, the group republished its study, saying it had corrected the errors. We have updated this story and have revised the chart to conform with changes in the study. Read more about what mistakes the group made here.

LOS ANGELES – Gerry Klatt gazes across the beach toward a peaceful bay at Cabrillo Beach, seemingly the perfect place for his daily dip. But he won't swim there.

Instead, Klatt braves the pounding waves about 100 yards away on the side of the beach exposed to open ocean where he believes the seawater is cleaner.

On many days, he'd be right. The inner side of Cabrillo Beach in Los Angeles' port town of San Pedro leads the list of California beaches that saw the highest percentage of days with a bacteria count deemed potentially dangerous. It's part of a report released Tuesday that lists the most troubled beaches in 29 coastal and Great Lakes states.

The Environment America Research and Policy Center study looked at the number of days in 2018 that the water had bacteria counts exceeding Environmental Protection Agency standards, which can potentially sicken swimmers.

Most days of the year, beaches are safe, but researchers found bacteria counts can spike on certain days, and fecal matter from people or animals is the chief culprit. It comes when sewers overflow or when fecal waste on streets washes into streams or creeks that flow to lakes or the ocean. A co-author of the study said more work needs to be done to clean up lakes and oceans.

Alis Zuniga pours a bucket of seawater on her half-buried friend at Cabrillo Beach in the San Pedro section of Los Angeles. Though it is clean most days,  the beach can have high bacteria counts at certain times of year.
Alis Zuniga pours a bucket of seawater on her half-buried friend at Cabrillo Beach in the San Pedro section of Los Angeles. Though it is clean most days, the beach can have high bacteria counts at certain times of year.

"It's hard to believe that 47 years after we passed the Clean Water Act that we are still concerned with poop in the water when people want to go swimming," said John Rumpler, clean water program director for the center.

In Chicago, 19 of 19 beaches sampled had at least one day last year when beaches were potentially unsafe for swimming. The Chicago Park District said in a statement that its beaches are within both its own and the state of Illinois' established risk levels and that it uses a different testing method, resulting in levels that are lower than what's reflected in the report.

There are plenty of other examples in the report. The Gulfport East beach in Mississippi showed high levels on 44 out of 66 days sampled. Tanner Park in New York's Suffolk County registered high on 48 out of 71 samples. South Shore Beach near Milwaukee would be considered potentially unsafe to swimmers on 34 of out the 60 days in which samples were taken.

The bayside of Cabrillo Beach registered unsafe on 85 occasions in one section and 43 in another out of 175 samples last year, the report says. It's not the first time it came in high, having been cited by other groups for issues more than a decade ago.

Los Angeles' recreation department referred inquiries to the California Coastal Commission, which issued a statement that said curtailing pollution is a high priority: "Our $45 billion a year coastal economy depends on keeping the water and beaches clean."

Cabrillo Beach in the San Pedro section is listed as having the highest frequency of high bacteria counts in California, though it is clean many days of the year
Cabrillo Beach in the San Pedro section is listed as having the highest frequency of high bacteria counts in California, though it is clean many days of the year

Cabrillo is challenged because its inner beach stretches at the end of a narrow bay near an industrial port where water doesn't circulate as easily as on the ocean side. It's hemmed in by a large marina complex on one side and the port's breakwater on other. It's within sight of large ships and barges making their way into the wharves in one of the nation's busiest ports.

Klatt, 58, of Torrance, California, said ship traffic figures in his decision to stay out of the waters of the bayside.

"The ships that come in – I don't know if it's the freighters or the cruise ships – they dump their waste," he said. He had no direct knowledge of such a practice, which is strictly prohibited, but he "heard" it was the case. Rumor or not, it's enough to keep him out of the bay and on the side facing the ocean for his daily routine, swimming back and forth along the coastline.

Others beachgoers weren't as concerned. On a sunny Sunday as his daughter Alis frolicked with other kids in the water, Raymond Zuniga, 20, of Los Angeles said he likes Cabrillo more than other local beaches, some of which smell "like petroleum," he said.

Drew Martin, 31, who lives nearby in San Pedro, said that overall, he thought the beach was pretty clean as he chased his 1-year-old son, Owen, through the sand.

When it comes to water quality, beaches aren't always what they seem. In the East, septic systems can sometimes leak into creeks. On all coasts, water can become contaminated by bird droppings, said Mara Dias, water quality manager for the Surfrider Foundation.

The stillness of the water can make a difference.

"Pollution (that) gets washed into high-energy beaches will dissipate pretty quickly," Dias said. "When it comes through streams and areas where there is not a lot of circulation, it just washes back and forth," not like when exposed to the open ocean.

Though many counties and states are good about closing beaches when pollution levels are too high and posting signs to warn beachgoers, she urged those planning a trip to the shore to check water quality reports before they arrive.

The good news? Luke Ginger, water quality scientist for Heal the Bay, another organization devoted to clean oceans, said the trend has been toward improvement. Local governments, he said, have done a better job of capturing, recirculating or treating stormwater runoff, among other steps.

"There are improvements that can be made, but for the most part, there's really good water quality. There are just a few beaches that have issues," he said.

Some of the beaches noted in the report are near each other. Here are the findings by state, according to the report:


• Fairhope Public Beach, Baldwin (21 unsafe days, 60 samples)

• Dog River, Alba Club, Mobile (9, 36)

• Volanta Avenue, Baldwin (8, 36)

• Camp Beckwith, Baldwin (8, 58)

• Orange Street Pier, Baldwin (6, 34)


• Inner Cabrillo Beach, Los Angeles (85 unsafe days, 175 samples)

• Coronado Ave. Beach, Los Angeles (62, 144)

• Salt Creek Beach, Orange (46, 80)

• Molino Avenue Beach, Los Angeles (45, 130)

• 5th Place Beach, Los Angeles (44, 140)


• Byram Beach I, Fairfield (6 unsafe days, 20 samples)

• Byram Beach II, Fairfield (6, 20)

• Seaside Park Beach I, Fairfield (5, 14)

• Seaview Beach, New Haven County, 4, 10

• Seaside Park Beach II, Fairfield (4, 12)


• Slaughter Beach, Sussex (16 unsafe days, 25 samples)

• Fenwick Island State Park Beach, Sussex (3, 16)

• Rehoboth Beach, Sussex (3, 32)

• Broadkill Beach, Sussex (2, 16)

• Lewes Beach North, Sussex (2, 17)


• Bayou Texar, Escambia (24 unsafe days, 50 samples)

• Sanders Beach, Escambia (23, 64)

• Crandon Park on Key Biscayne, Miami-Dade (17, 63)

• Bird Key Park, Sarasota (17, 67)

• Venice Fishing Pier, Sarasota (15, 64)


• St. Simons Island Lighthouse, Glynn (6 unsafe days, 50 samples)

• Kings Ferry, Chatham (3, 4)

• Skidaway Narrows, Chatham (3, 8)

• Tybee Island, Polk St., Chatham (3, 46)

• Jekyll Driftwood Beach, Glynn (2, 46)


• Keehi Lagoon (North), Honolulu (11 unsafe days, 91 samples)

• Keehi Lagoon (South), Honolulu (10, 91)

• Punaluu Beach Park, Honolulu (9, 12)

• MS2 (Kapoho Point), Honolulu (9, 20)

• Kalihi Channel, Honolulu (8, 91)


• South Shore Beach, Cook (38 unsafe days, 98 samples)

• Hartigan Beach, Cook (35, 96)

• 63rd Street Beach, Cook (34, 95)

• Rogers Avenue Park Beach, Cook (33, 95)

• Howard Street Park Beach, Cook (28, 96)


• Jeorse Park Beach I, Lake (38 unsafe days, 111 samples)

• Jeorse Park Beach II, Lake (31, 111)

• Buffington Harbor Beach, Lake (24, 111)

• Indiana Dunes State Park East Beach, Porter (18, 101)

• Washington Park Beach, LaPorte (15, 105)


• North Beach, Calcasieu (11 unsafe days, 31 samples)

• Fontainebleau State Park, St. Tammany (10, 29)

• Cypremort Point State Park, St. Mary (10, 31)

• Rutherford Beach, Cameron (9, 31)

• Holly Beach 4, Cameron (7, 31)


• Goose Rocks Beach – Site 5, York (14 unsafe days, 39 samples)

• Goose Rocks Beach – Site 1, York (9, 39)

• Willard Beach, Cumberland (8, 26)

• Ogunquit Beach, York (7, 14)

• Kennebunk Beach, York (6, 18)


• Camp Pecometh, Kent (9 unsafe days, 16 samples)

• Public Landing Beach near Snow Hill, Worcester (8, 15)

• Ocean City Beach 1, Worcester (8, 28)

• Ferry Park, Kent (7, 10)

• Purse State Park, Charles (7, 12)


• Nahant Bay at Eastern Ave, Essex (39 unsafe days, 92 samples)

• Tenean Beach, Suffolk (26, 94)

• Nahant Bay at Pierce Road, Essex (23, 92)

• Nahant Bay at Kimball Road, Essex (21, 92)

• Quincy Shore at Channing Street, Norfolk (18, 93)


• St. Clair Shores Memorial Park Beach, Macomb (18 unsafe days, 49 samples)

• Pier Park, Wayne (15, 20)

• HCMA/Lake St. Clair Metropark Beach, Macomb (13, 51)

•Kiwanis Beach, Mackinac (10, 25)

• Singing Bridge Beach, Arenac (8, 11)


• New Duluth Boat Club landing, St. Louis (14 unsafe days, 37 samples)

• Twin Points Public Access, Lake (4, 16)

• Agate Bay, Lake (4, 17)

• 5 miles SE of Duluth Aerial Lift Bridge, St. Louis (4, 29)

Mouth of the Lester River, St. Louis (2, 13)


• Gulfport East Beach, Harrison (44 unsafe days, 66 samples)

• Gulfport Central Beach, Harrison (35, 62)

• Shearwater Beach, Jackson (35, 64)

• Long Beach, Harrison (35, 67)

• Courthouse Road Beach, Harrison (34, 60)

New Hampshire

• State Beach-Left, Rockingham (5 unsafe days, 26 samples)

• State Beach-Center, Rockingham (5, 27)

• New Castle Island-Right, Rockingham (4, 23)

• State Beach-Right, Rockingham (3, 26)

• Sawyer Beach-Right, Rockingham (2, 8)

New Jersey

• Beachwood Beach West, Ocean (14 unsafe days, 22 samples)

• Belmar Borough at L Street Beach, Monmouth (11, 21)

• Highlands Borough at Highlands Recreation Center, Monmouth (8, 19)

• Berkeley Township at West Beach Avon Road, Ocean (8, 19)

• Brick Township at Windward Beach, Ocean (8, 22)

New York

• Tanner Park, Suffolk (48 unsafe days, 71 samples)

• Woodlawn Beach State Park, Erie (36, 104)

• Shirley Beach, Suffolk (28, 47)

• Venetian Shores, Suffolk (28, 48)

• Valley Grove Beach, Suffolk (24, 51)

North Carolina

• Sound access at the intersection of

E. Main Street/Tooley Street, Belhaven, Beaufort (11 unsafe days, 35 samples)

• Pamlico River – City Park, Beaufort (8, 17)

• NC Maritime Museum Sailing Camp, Carteret (8, 41)

• Pamlico River-Washington-Trestle, Beaufort (7, 17)

•Mouth of Slocum Creek - north side beach, Craven (7, 18)


• Bay View West, Erie (42 unsafe days, 70 samples)

• Villa Angela State Park, Cuyahoga (38, 115)

• Euclid State Park, Cuyahoga 36, 112)

• Maumee Bay State Park (Inland), Lucas (33, 56)

• Lakeview Beach, Lorain (32, 60)


• Sunset Bay State Park Beach/Big Creek, Coos (10 unsafe days, 18 samples)

• Harris Beach State Park at Harris Creek, Curry (5, 7)

• Nye Beach turnaround/discharge pipe, Lincoln (5, 11)

• Sunset Bay, seep creek, Coos (5, 11)

• Sunset Bay State Park Beach/North Beach, Coos (3,4)


• Beach 11 East in Thompson Bay, Erie (15 unsafe days, 39 samples)

• Beach 11 West in Thompson Bay, Erie (15, 39)

• Beach 11 Center in Thompson Bay, Erie (13, 39)

•1 East Center, Erie, (6, 28)

•1 East West, Erie, (5,27)

Rhode Island

• Easton's Beach, Newport (10 unsafe days, 29 samples)

• Conimicut Point Beach – West, Kent (6, 25)

• Sandy Point Beach - North, Newport (5, 26)

• Sandy Point Beach – South, Newport (5, 26)

• Oakland Beach Center, Kent (5, 26)

South Carolina

• Withers Swash, Horry (32 unsafe days, 70 samples)

• Myrtle Beach at 24th Avenue N, Horry (30, 70)

• White Point Swash, Horry (26, 70)

• Bear Branch Swash, Horry (26, 70)

• Cane Patch Swash, Horry (26, 70)


• Cole Park – Site 3, Nueces (52 unsafe days, 64 samples)

• Ropes Park – Site 2, Nueces (43, 59)

• Cole Park – Site 4, Nueces (42, 53)

• Cole Park – Site 2, Nueces (38, 56)

• Poenisch Park, Nueces (35, 55)


• North Community Beach, Norfolk city (7 unsafe days, 18 samples)

• Captains Quarters, Norfolk city (5, 18)

• 10th View, Behind Quality Inn, Norfolk city (4, 18)

• 15th Street, Virginia Beach city (4, 20)

• 13th View, North End, Norfolk city (3, 18)


• Sooes Beach, Clallam (7 unsafe days, 41 samples)

• Little Squalicum Park, Whatcom (5, 15)

• Lummi Bay, adjacent to second tidegate, Whatcom (5, 34)

• Dakwas Park Beach, Neah Bay, Clallam (5, 48)

• Richie Viewpoint, King, (4, 13)


• South Shore Beach, Milwaukee, (34, 60)

• McKinley Beach, Milwaukee (26, 61)

• Eichelman Beach, Kenosha, (21,51)

• Maslowski Beach, Ashland (14, 32)

• Nicolet Beach, Door (14, 59)

Source: Environment America Research and Policy Center

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: America's dirtiest beaches are prone to unsafe bacteria, report shows