Hundreds of thousands of people — from clam-digging families to big-wave surfers to the eco-tourism industry — stand to benefit from a comprehensive study to identify the source of fecal contamination on the coastline around Pillar Point Harbor. The answers, however, may not be that simple.
A three-year study, funded by an $845,000 grant from the State Water Resources Control Board to improve the chronically poor water in the harbor area, may for the first time give officials a conclusive answer as to the source of the pollution.
Pillar Point Harbor is an enclosed watershed with six beaches — Capistrano Beach, Yacht Club Beach, Marsh Beach, Mavericks Beach, Inner Harbor Beach and Beach House Beach. The area attracts more than 100,000 visitors each year.
The water in the area is poor; Capistrano Beach is the most polluted with traces of E. coli. The nonprofit organization Heal the Bay ranks Capistrano as the most polluted beach in Northern California. The San Mateo County Environmental Health Department posted permanent signs declaring its waters a potential health hazard.
Possible pollution sources range from human contamination from leaking sewer lines, vessels that dump human waste into the waters, dogs, seagulls, or lack of adequate flushing in the harbor, according to Kellyx Nelson, executive director of the San Mateo County Resource Conservation District.
But warning signs and closed beaches aren’t a thing of the past just yet, Nelson cautioned. Both the source and solution to the pollution may turn out to be complicated.
“There is a very real possibility that we will not find a single source of contamination. The problem may be from the incremental contamination of many sources over many years,” Nelson said.
But even a complicated answer would be an answer, and would stop the finger-pointing over the source of the pollution that has plagued the community, Nelson said.
Cherise Hale McHugh, president of the Half Moon Bay Coastside Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau, hopes an eventual cleanup of the beaches will bolster the area’s primary industry — tourism. Nearly 2 million people visit the Coastside area annually, McHugh said.
The study will be watched carefully by thebig-wave riders who compete at the annual Mavericks Surf Contest in the area.
“I think the grant is fantastic,” said Keir Beadling, managing partner of Mavericks Surf Ventures. “It’s a very special area out there.”