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Environment

Three San Diego County Beaches Ranked Among Cleanest In State

File photo of Carlsbad State Beach taken April 3, 2021.
Alexander Nguyen
File photo of Carlsbad State Beach taken April 3, 2021.

A trio of San Diego County beaches landed on an environmental group's annual honor roll listing of beaches with perfect year-round water-quality grades, but two others were ranked as among the most polluted in the state thanks to Tijuana River sewage flow, according to a report released Tuesday.

A total of 35 California beaches earned spots on the Heal the Bay's Honor Roll, down from 42 last year. Orange County led the way with 10 entries on the list.

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San Diego County beaches making the grade were Carlsbad at Encina Creek, Carlsbad at Palomar Airport Road and the Solana Beach Tide Beach Park at Solana Vista Drive.

RELATED: Tijuana Slough Shoreline Closed Because Of Sewage Contamination

While the news in Heal the Bay's 31st annual Beach Report Card was mostly good for the coastline up and down the state, San Diego County had two beaches land on the organization's Beach Bummer List of the most polluted beaches in the state — Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge at the Tijuana River mouth and the beach located three-quarters of a mile north of the river mouth.

"These beaches are impacted by sewage flowing from the Tijuana River and Punta Bandera Treatment Plant," according to the report. "The sewage originates from impaired and insufficient sewage infrastructure in the city of Tijuana."

Billions of gallons of sewage-tainted water has flowed out of Mexico, into the Tijuana River Valley on the U.S side of the international border and out into the ocean over the past two years.

U.S. officials are working with local officials to build solutions that will help capture, contain and clean renegade cross-border flows. Work on those projects has not yet begun.

“These two beaches right at the Tijuana River mouth just had far more bacteria which indicates the presence of other more harmful things,” said Luke Ginger of Heal The Bay. “So this report is a public health report, primarily. We’re trying to warn people where it’s safe to get in the water.”

The contamination forces public health officials to post pollution warning signs on beaches from the border all the way up to Coronado.

Heal the Bay's report assigns letter grades to beaches based on water quality and pollution, ranging from A to F. According to the report, 93% of California beaches received an A or B grade for summer 2020, roughly on par with the five-year average. During dry winter conditions, 92% of beaches scored an A or B, but during wet weather, just 57% of beaches received top marks.

RELATED: Tijuana River Valley Pummeled By Garbage

The report notes that the wet weather results may be skewed by lower-than-usual water sampling during the period, with five counties not collecting any samples during wet weather. But the report's authors noted that the poor wet-weather grades are concerning, given that rainfall in coastal counties was 41% below the historical average over the winter, yet the beach quality grades still fell.

Ginger said the Heal the Bay report can be a guide for people looking for safe areas for recreational ocean swimming.

“I would want to swim at what we call an open ocean beach,” Ginger said. “That is a beach that’s not enclosed in any sort of bay or harbor or anything like that.”

He also recommended steering clear of stormwater drains because they carry urban runoff which can contain things that make swimmers sick.

Testing results for Southern California beaches, extending from Santa Barbara through San Diego counties, were generally on par with the statewide results, with 94% of beaches receiving A or B grades during dry summer months.

Shelley Luce, Heal the Bay president/CEO, wrote in the report that climate change continues to present challenges for the coastline.

"All regions of California are experiencing extreme or exceptional drought conditions in 2021," Luce said. "Although decreases in rainfall generally improve water quality, our beaches and ocean ecosystems are still threatened by sea-level rise, ocean acidification and other pollution sources. This is alarming as we expect people to increasingly seek out ocean beaches and freshwater swimming holes to cool off as local temperatures rise."