See real-time water quality reports for 3 SoCal beaches

Environmental group Heal the Bay regularly rates the Santa Monica Pier as one of the worst in Southern California, based on dry-weather water quality testing. An online tool now offers real-time predictions of fecal bacteria pollution at the Pier.
Environmental group Heal the Bay regularly rates the Santa Monica Pier as one of the worst in Southern California, based on dry-weather water quality testing. An online tool now offers real-time predictions of fecal bacteria pollution at the Pier.
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At select beaches in Southern California, starting Monday morning, swimmers can check current water quality conditions before they hit the surf.

Santa Monica-based environmental group Heal the Bay, Stanford University researchers, and county public health departments have developed a new online tool to monitor water quality at local beaches.

The tool, still in its pilot testing phase, is called “Water Quality Nowcast.” It rolled out on Heal the Bay’s Beach Report Card site for three beaches: Santa Monica Pier, Doheny State Beach in Orange County and Arroyo Burro Beach in Santa Barbara.

County health departments regularly monitor beaches for bacteria levels, but the testing process can take a couple of days, said Heal the Bay’s James Alamillo.

“If you went swimming on Friday, you wouldn’t know what water quality was like for that day until Sunday,” he said.

With the new tool, statistical models take a look at factors like UV radiation, tides, water flow and rain — along with similar historical data — and turn out predictions for current fecal bacterial contamination. Without a long wait time for test results, beach managers will be able to close beaches sooner and reduce public health risk.

The predictions have proven as accurate as the old way of physically testing, Alexandria Boehm, one of the scientists who developed the models behind the tool, told KPCC last month

"We found that the models were doing much better than using the previous measurements. So, overall, the models were able to protect public health, because they were able to give an early warning of a posting decision that was missed by the sampling," said Boehm. “It's definitely better."

The hope is that warning swimmers of poor water quality in real time will reduce the incidence of full-body rashes, ear and respiratory infections, and  stomach bugs that spike when water is contaminated.

Last month, Heal the Bay again ranked the Santa Monica Pier — one of the three pilot beaches — among the worst in the state, based on dry-weather water quality testing.

Researchers will keep testing the statistical models over the summer at the three pilot beaches, and they plan to expand the tool to other beaches along the coast after Labor Day.