Capitola and Cowell beaches are popular with Santa Cruz sunbathers, surfers, sand castle builders — and a lot of bacteria.

For ten years, Cowell Beach continuously clinched top spots on environmental organization, Heal the Bay’s “Beach Bummer” charts for most polluted beaches in California. However, thanks to recent efforts by the county and the environmental organizations coalition Cowell Working Group the beach ended its streak after 2019. 

While Cowell has avoided the 2020-2021 list, its neighbor Capitola Beach, just six miles down the coast, landed in third place. After having avoided a “Beach Bummer” appearance since 2016, this year Capitola Beach earned a resounding “F.”

The polluted waters of iconic Santa Cruz beaches can be attributed to a few things. In part, it’s the combination of E. Coli, enterococcus, and fecal coliform bacteria from pigeon feces, sewage, and agricultural pollutants that flow in from the county’s rivers and creeks. All those contributors are a result of environmental negligence from a global scale all the way down to Santa Cruz County.

The pollution of these two beaches cannot be seen as two different issues separated by distance. In fact, by neglecting to see how all of our ecosystems are intimately connected, we contribute to the perpetuation of harm to our planet.

 In 2020 and 2021, there were two sewage spills into Santa Cruz waters totaling 3,979 gallons, one of which was 3,800 gallons and occurred upstream of the Santa Cruz Wharf. This information is collected from Heal the Bay, who noted that no health advisories were released after these spills.

The levels of bacteria at the beach are not constant, with conditions being most dangerous directly after a rainstorm as water washes through the area, funneling it onto Cowell and Capitola Beaches through their storm drains. So, if you’re planning on going for a swim, check the county’s water quality status or the beach report card for water quality.

Heal the Bay recommends always maintaining at least 100 yards between you and the storm drains connection. It is also recommended to wait 3 days after any storm to swim in or have any contact with the water.

Despite the geographical distinctions suggested by the ‘Beach Bummers’ list, the ocean, above all else, is a highly interconnected network. Santa Cruz beaches have influence on the beaches in Santa Barbara, which influence the beaches of Hawai’i, and across to the sand in Cuba. One “clean” beach is still connected to many polluted ones.

Northern California beaches have a reputation for polluted waters, claiming six of the top ten spots on the ‘Beach Bummers’ list. On the opposite spectrum, the ‘Honor Roll’ list is dominated by southern California counties, but this separation of Northern and Southern California ignores their undivided waters. 

The bacterial contamination of our Santa Cruz beaches is just a small piece of the puzzle. Fighting for cleaner beaches — cleaner oceans — means taking into account the ways that different beaches suffer under capitalist exploitation of land and people. 

American militarization in Hawai’i, Okinawa, and other island nations across the world contributes to ocean pollution. Only by expanding our view from Cowell out to beaches across the globe can we see the significance of healing all our beaches at home.

Capitola Beach’s frightening ranking serves as a reminder that keeping Cowell Beach off the 2021 list is only a small success in a continual process, and we must apply these  same efforts to our other beautiful beaches. 

Cowell Beach has just barely made it into the clear by meeting the barest minimum of safety standards. A win for Cowell is not the end of the fight, and Santa Cruz County has a long way to go before it can fully start celebrating.