Orange County beachgoers can rest easy knowing that the waters off the Southern California coast are — for the most part — pretty clean, and they seem to be getting cleaner, according to environmental group Heal the Bay's 23rd annual Beach Report Card.
The report, which assigns letter grades to 445 beaches statewide based on their weekly bacterial levels, found that 93% of the beaches monitored in Orange County received A or B ratings during last summer's dry weather period. The beaches are most heavily used during dry summer days, according to the report.
That number drops to 86% during winter dry weather, and to 73% during wet weather, when storm runoff can contribute to higher levels of water pollution. Still, the report noted, in Orange County and statewide, more beaches earned A or B grades than in years past.
Orange County saw nine sewage spills that led to beach closures during the time tracked in the report.
Within the county, eight beaches made the Honor Roll, meaning they consistently had A+ water over the past year. The report card measured grades from last May through the beginning of this month.
Four of the Orange County Honor Roll spots — Lido Beach, 1,000 Steps, Camel Point and Blue Lagoon — are in Laguna Beach.
El Moro Beach in Crystal Cove State Park, between Laguna and Newport Beach, also made top grades, as did The Wedge in Newport and Surfside Beach in Huntington Beach.
Although most Orange County beaches maintained high marks, two made the report's Top 10 Beach Bummer list: Poche Beach and Doheny State Beach, in San Clemente and Dana Point, respectively.
Meanwhile, water quality at a few monitoring spots in Newport Dunes took a tumble from the 2011-12 report card.
While four monitoring spots along the edges of the dunes earned A grades during the summer, they all earned Fs during the wet season, and one — on the west side of the dunes near the area's rental boat dock — also garnered an F during winter dry weather.
That area, though, is at the opposite end of the Dunes from the waterfront resort's designated swim area, said General Manager Andy Theodorou.
"We do everything we can to keep the beaches here clean," he said. "We have a swim area, and the swim area is typically not affected by low grades."
And to a large extent, water quality is at the mercy of Mother Nature, said Orange County Health Care Agency program manager Larry Honeybourne.
Still, he said, overall, "There's a number of reasons why water quality is good and has been getting better."
He said that "in the old days," storm drain water would run off into the ocean without first being treated.
Now, during the dry weather periods, urban runoff is mostly diverted to the sewer system, which eliminates "point sources" of pollution.
He said the county and individual cities have worked with regional wastewater agencies to create a "holistic approach" that sets Orange County apart from its neighbor to the north, Los Angeles County, which led the state with four locations on the "Bummer" list.
Honeybourne added that education has had a positive effect on water quality.
"People care a lot about how the beach looks," which is why, Honeybourne said, the agency encourages locals to adopt a sort of water quality mantra: "The ocean starts at your front door."
"You really have to look at it holistically and look at your watershed," he said. "If it goes into the ocean, is that impacting the ocean negatively?"
For week-by-week water quality updates, as well as historical data from the Beach Report Card, go to beachreportcard.org.