California Beaches: Forget About the Sharks, ‘Urban Slobber’ Much Scarier


A seven-foot long great white shark hooked on a fishing line near California’s Manhattan Beach pier took a nasty bite out of a hapless swimmer this weekend. The man is in stable condition despite having sustained a bite to the torso and the shark was cut loose from the fishing line it had been battling for some 40 minutes. While shark attacks draw a lot of attention and are the subject of many a horror story, they remain rare occurrences off California beaches. However, the same cannot be said for “urban slobber” which is the fluid waste that runs off city streets, into drains and eventually into the sea. This urban slobber, because it is essentially untreated liquid waste, plays a key role in polluting the waters just off the coast and can result in a scary level of contaminates. These contaminants can make people very sick with rather unforgettable symptoms including intestinal disorders and various infections.

McNears Beach on the Northern California San Pablo Bay was recently designated as one of California’s “dirtiest beaches” by the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC). McNears Beach is described by Marin County Parks as a family fun place where the “narrow, bayside beach offers a fun, safe place for general beach recreation and easy carry-in boat access for kayaks and canoes.” However, in a June 2014 press release by the NRDC titled, “10 Percent of America’s Beach Water Samples Fail Safety Test” McNears was given a dismal rating. Thirty-two percent of the water samples taken from McNears Beach exceeded the Beach Action Value (BAV) safety threshold. In essence, this means that at various times the water contained high levels of dangerous bacteria known to make people sick.

There have been no shark attacks reported at California’s McNears Beach. However, according to NRDC’s water director Steve Fleischli, the water at McNears contains the fecal bacterium indicator “enterococcus” in high enough levels that they triggered the cutoff point at which the water becomes a safety hazard. The source of this type of coliform or fecal contamination is usually from a sewage leak. However, according to a report by the Marin Independent Journal, no such leak has been identified. The NRDC report has cause some families who have frequented the beach for many years to be scared of allowing their children to do more than put their feet in the water – some opting to only swim in the recreational swimming pool also available at Mcnears.

Urban slobber runoff into a storm drain

Urban slobber consists of any type of waste or garbage that is deposited on city streets, driveways, yards, parking lots and even hiking or camping areas. This includes everything from food waste, soaps and gardening pesticides to human and animal fecal matter. When it is washed down storm drains via rainstorms or other means, it eventually drains into the ocean as untreated wastewater and poses a serious health risk.

Monterey Bay California storm drain runoff

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has estimated that 3.5 million people will become ill from untreated sewage or urban slobber wastewater. Those who are exposed to the water could experience symptoms commonly associated with the stomach flu, contract eye infections and present with skin rashes. The contaminated water also poses the threat of hepatitis, dysentery, and respiratory infections. For the very young, older citizens or those with compromised immune systems the results of coming in contact with contaminated water can even be life threatening.

While shark attacks receive a lot of media coverage because they are sensational and scary, the pollution by urban slobber is an insidious and dangerous threat to beach goers in California and in other states. California only had one beach on NRDC’s list of the cleanest beaches, Newport Beach in Orange County, while Ohio had the dirtiest beaches in all of the nation with seven on that list. Those heading to the coast to recreate should not forget to check EPA beach ratings in their respective states, especially those who have family members who are younger, older or immunocompromised. In addition, the EPA has recommendations for how to prevent water runoff pollution, which, if implemented by a majority of the population, might go far in reducing the health risks posed by urban slobber.

By Alana Marie Burke


Natural Resources Defense Council (Press Release)
Natural Resources Defense Council (Testing the Waters 2014)
United States Environmental Protection Agency
Marin Independent Journal
Marin County Parks and Recreation

One Response to "California Beaches: Forget About the Sharks, ‘Urban Slobber’ Much Scarier"

  1. JLenkiewicz   July 31, 2014 at 11:17 am

    Nice article. I wish the things that were really dangerous – and controllable – would garner nearly as much attention as freak nature hazards. But it seems the public would rather be titillated by sudden, random threats than actually change behaviors or spend money to fix infrastructure.

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