Vanessa Schell and a friend sat on the pebbly shore at Point Richmond's Keller Beach on Saturday, watching their two children playing in the murky gray water. A girl about the age of 3 and a boy of about 5 each scooped up handfuls of sand as they happily splashed in the waves. About 100 feet away from the two families, the image of a yellow traffic light bore the following warning, "ADVISORY: Weekly testing for bacteria has exceeded state health standards. Beach water contact may cause illness. Do not swallow water. Shower after water contact."
Schell confessed that she was somewhat concerned about the beach's water quality, and said she didn't plan to swim herself, but she admitted that she hadn't taken the time to check the water quality information when she first arrived.
Along with Alameda's Crown Beach, Keller Beach is just one of two designated swimming beaches monitored by the East Bay Regional Parks District, although people also swim at smaller stretches of the coast such as Albany Beach, where the water quality is not tested. Despite the importance of beach access to East Bay residents, surprisingly few seem to know about Keller Beach. This so-called "hidden gem" (per Yelp) is immediately past the Point Richmond arch on Dornan drive, obscured from the road behind a line of trees.
Yet perhaps it is for the best that Keller Beach is not well known. Although the water there is regularly tested, the beach usually flunks the test. Often it receives a yellow or red light from the East Bay Regional Parks district, which scores all Bay Area swimming areas with a traffic light model.
Last week, the nonprofit environmental advocacy group Heal The Bay released its own score card. This year, Keller Beach made Heal the Bay's "Beach Bummer" list for the very first time, with a ranking of the ninth-worst water quality in California. It gave the southern end of Keller Beach a grade of D and the northern stretch of beach an F. Crab Cove at Crown Beach did not make this year's report, but last year it was called out as a "beach bummer" for receiving a summer dry weather grade of C and a wet weather grade of F.
So what accounts for Keller Beach's consistently low scores? Given the multitude of possible sources, it's always hard to speak with certainty about such matters. However, it is less than a half mile away from the Richmond Sewage Treatment Plant, which discharges treated waste into the Richmond Harbor on the other side of a fairly large peninsula. When the tides are coming in, that discharge eventually reaches Keller Beach, albeit in a diluted form.
Because it is all but impossible to test for every dangerous bacteria, agencies in California test specifically for three indicator bacteria — total coliforms, fecal coliforms, and enterrococci — often found with harmful bacteria. All water contains bacteria, but some are more dangerous than others, such as certain strains of E. Coli, a bacteria that comes from the feces of warm-blooded animals and could be said to resemble microscopic Cheetos. Ingesting E. Coli and other similar pathogens can cause gastroenteritis. Most people do not actually die from E. Coli, but according to the EPA they can get very sick from one or more of the following symptoms: "nausea, vomiting, stomachache, diarrhea, headache or fever."
From April to October, parks district employees test East Bay water each week, and from November until March it is tested twice a month. The weekly testing overlaps with the April 1 to October 31 swimming season. District Water Management Supervisor Hal MacLean said water quality is usually tested at the beginning of the week, with testing taking about 24 hours to complete. The district tries to get the results out as soon as possible thereafter, he added. So the signs at the beach go up within about three days of the original sample being taken and stay there for a week.
The good news is that bay water is typically at its cleanest in the summer when most people want to going swimming. When it's not raining, waste treatment facilities are typically capable of handling the complete volume of wastewater that they encounter, leaving the tides to dilute whatever substances are left in the fully treated wastewater.
But not so in the rainier months of winter and spring. Heavy rains can swamp the capacity of treatment plants, forcing treatment officials to spill untreated sewage into San Francisco Bay. Runoff also sweeps up any contaminants found on the streets, from pesticides to motor oil to dog poop. Scientists call this non-point-source pollution because there is not one single source to identify and eradicate. Or as the cartoon fish Gill put it in the movie Finding Nemo, "All drains lead to the ocean." That is why the wetter winter and spring seasons are more dangerous.
The low grades recently awarded to Keller Beach by Heal the Bay were so-called "dry grades." Heal the Bay scientist Luke Ginger explained that a dry grade is collected during dry weather, whereas a wet grade is issued within three days of significant rain. "For the vast majority of beaches, wet grades are worse," Ginger said.
Most sewage spills tend to occur during the wetter days of winter and spring. According to the Heal the Bay report card, some 71 sewage spills were reported to have reached Alameda or Contra Costa County's waters during the past 12 months. The report card recorded 2.5 million gallons of sewage spilled in the two counties.
Sadly, however, even Keller Beach's dry grades have been abysmal. In Heal the Bay's 2018-2019 beach report card released on June 26, only 2 percent of beaches in California received a D or an F in the summer dry season. Keller Beach was one of them.
State law sets limits for maximum bacteria content of 10,000 total coliforms, 400 fecal coliforms, and 104 enterococcus. For two weeks in a row in early June, Keller Beach exceeded 24,000 total coliforms, with 120 enterococcus on June 17. Is this dangerous? MacLean said not necessarily. "It's the overlying law that kind of tells what we are supposed to do," MacLean said. "So we're supposed to test for total coliforms, fecal coliforms, and enterococcus bacteria ... it's too bad because we don't think it's really reflecting on what the conditions are."
Swimmers also must ingest contaminated water to get sick, and the district takes its water samples in only about 18 inches of water, which is shallower than that in which most adults will swim — although not so with young children. Deeper water tends to produce lower test results, so water depth is another important factor to consider for swimmers who are worried about their safety.
But few swimmers at Keller Beach appear to be concerned in any case, although it could be because no one sees the signs. On a recent Saturday afternoon, Stephanie Galeana was visiting the beach for the first time and planned to enter the water with her son and family friends. She had not checked the water quality and asked a reporter nervously whether she should be concerned.
Other visitors said they knew that the water is tested, but admitted that they don't check its quality before swimming. Vanessa Garcia said that she was not concerned about the safety of her swimming children because they rarely visit that beach. Diana Sanchez said she'd heard about the Heal The Bay report card results on the radio, and warned her children, but then let them play in the water anyway because they wanted to.
"There's always room for improvement," MacLean conceded. "We do have the information on the web and we do have the sign next to the primary steps that go straight to the beach."
While this is true, those signs are not particularly close to the main path to the beach, and many people use other paths to get there. In interviews with thirteen random people at Keller Beach on a recent afternoon, no one had checked the water quality, but all had either gone swimming, planned to, or came with someone who did.
Senior Scientist David Senn of the San Francisco Estuary Institute believes the signs at Keller Beach are not enough of a warning. "People need to know that they should look for it so there's a public outreach component," he said.
Still, because the yellow light from the East Bay Regional Parks and the D and F grades from Heal The Bay only reflect the presence of indicator bacteria and not necessarily harmful pathogens themselves, maybe swimmers don't have to be afraid. But just to be safe, people may want to check that water quality before packing up their cars.