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Recreational Water Quality Monitoring in Santa Cruz County

Why does the County Test the Water?
Thousands of people use Santa Cruz County swimming areas annually. On any one day people can be found swimming, surfing, body-surfing, diving, or just walking through the water's edge at any of the fresh and marine water beaches in Santa Cruz County.

Generally these waters are clean and safe for swimming. However, to ensure public health and safety, The County of Santa Cruz Environ-mental Health Services regularly tests these waters for contamination. If problems are found the public is notified and steps are taken to control the source of contamination.

Can I get sick from swimming in the ocean or streams?
Swimming in water that is contaminated by sewage, animal waste, chemicals, or other types of contamination can result in minor illnesses such as; skin rashes, eye and ear infections, and upset stomachs, or more severe and potentially life-threatening diseases such as cholera, hepatitis, and meningitis.

Sources of contamination include sewage and industrial waste discharges and contributions from residential sources such as storm drain runoff and domestic animal wastes. Sewage can come from failing septic systems, discharges to storm drains, or cracked or blocked sewer lines in sewered areas. Large concentrations of birds or marine mammals may also be sources of contamination which result in illness.

In spite of the heavy recreational water use in Santa Cruz County, there have been very few reports of illnesses linked to water contact. Water-borne illnesses such as cholera and meningitis that have life-threatening impacts in other countries have not been shown to be a problem at local swimming areas.

How does the County test the water?
The County of Santa Cruz Environmental Health Service routinely monitors rivers, creeks, and ocean swimming areas in Santa Cruz County for the potential presence of disease-causing organisms by testing for "indicator" bacteria.

Indicator bacteria are types of bacteria not normally found in high numbers in oceans, rivers, or creeks but always found in sources of sewage contamination. The County of Santa Cruz tests for Fecal Coliform Bacteria as the primary method for determining if water is contaminated. The presence of indicator bacteria signify that other disease-causing organisms may also be present. Studies have shown that when the indicator bacteria exceeds a certain level there may be a greater chance of getting sick.

How often does the County test the water?
Santa Cruz County routinely tests rivers, creeks, and the ocean beaches throughout the year.  During rainy weather, testing of the recreational areas is reduced and more sampling is done of storm drain outlets and residential runoff. These areas can contaminate waterways for up to three days after the rainfall has ended.

When a high indicator bacteria level is found, the site is re-tested, and potential contamination sources are investigated. Potential sources include sewage spills, stormwater runoff, migratory birds, pet waste, spills and unproperly managed human waste.

What do the posted signs mean?
If a site exceeds state standards and there is a confirmed source of sewage contamination, the site is posted with Water Quality Advisory signs.

Signs posted suggest the severity of the water quality problem:

-Warning: Warning signs have black lettering on a white background and suggest that there may be a health risk associated with swimming in the water. Warning signs are posted when bacterial standards have exceeded state swimming standards but there is no confirmed source of contamination.

-Danger: Danger signs have red lettering on a white background and are posted alerting swimmers that there is a definite and confirmed source of sewage contamination linked to a broken sewer line or a leaking septic system. These signs are posted when the Health Department feels there is a definite health risk associated with swimming in contaminated waters.

Persons using recreational water posted by County Health Officials do so at their own risk. These signs are posted to alert the public that there may be a risk of illness associated with swimming in contaminated waters and are an advisory rather than a quarantine.

What waters should I avoid?
Avoid waters which are posted with warning signs or which look unhealthy.

Obvious signs of unhealthy water would be stagnant, frothy black or brown water, or a cloudy white or off-white colored water, or water with an offensive odor. An oily slick or sheen may indicate gasoline or oil products in the water.

Avoid going in the water during or immediately following rainstorms. Swimming in areas close to urban streams and storm drain outlets should be avoided during and for up to three days after the end of a rainfall event due to the increased levels of bacteria caused by rainfall runoff.

What should I do if I think I have gotten sick from the water?
Contact Santa Cruz County Environmental Health Services at 454-2022 to report your concerns. Information you should provide are: name, dates and areas you were swimming, symptoms, reasons you believe you got sick from swimming, and a telephone number that you or your health care provider can be reached for any other information we may need.

Symptoms of the presence of disease-causing organisms are:

-Skin rashes
-Ear and eye infections
-Gastrointestinal upsets, (diarrhea, nausea, stomachaches)
-Open wound infections
-Continuing headaches

To be safe while swimming in Santa Cruz area waters learn to:
Pay attention to and obey the advisories posted by County Health Officials. Stay out of water that is discolored, cloudy,  or has any unusual or foul odors. Stay out of water near storm drain outfalls during and after rainfall events. Contact Environmental Health if you have a question about the water quality in any swimming area.

The County of Santa Cruz Environmental Health Service has various programs working in cooperation with other agencies and volunteer groups, to protect and enhance the quality of waters of the


For further information contact:
Santa Cruz County Environmental Health Service
701 Ocean Street, Room 312
Santa Cruz, CA 95060
(831) 454-2022