NRDC grades the health of our beach waters; Baker Beach ranks lowest

The Natural Resources Defense Council released their annual report this week, entitled “Testing the Waters 2014: A Guide To Water Quality At Vacation Beaches”. In it, they detail water quality conditions at beaches in 30 states along the shores of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Great Lakes, using water samples taken in 2013.

We took a look at our nearby beaches – Baker Beach, China Beach, and Ocean Beach – to see how they ranked.

The key indicator that the report looks at is the Beach Action Value (BAV) safety threshold, and what percent of samples from a given beach exceed the threshold due to higher than acceptable levels of bacteria.

Ocean Beach offers the cleanest waters, with 0% of samples exceeding the BAV safety threshold. China Beach is just slightly behind with 2% of samples exceeding the BAV.

Baker Beach has the most alarming statistics, with numbers as high as 28% of samples exceeding the BAV threshold, specifically those taken from the Lobos Creek dumpout near the lower parking lot of Baker Beach. Two other spots at Baker Beach came in much lower at 3% and 7%.

According to the NRDC, “the largest known contributor to beach closings or health advisory days has historically been stormwater pollution. Untreated sewage spills and overflows are also frequently to blame.”

Baker Beach is no stranger to low ratings. In 2011, Heal the Bay listed Baker on its “Beach Bummer” list, which ranked the most polluted shorelines in the state. Lobos Creek empties onto Baker Beach which apparently creates opportunity for bacteria to congregate. That portion of Baker Beach is on the list for an official cleanup effort, but research and recommendations won’t be completed until 2019.

Year over year, our beaches fared about the same. The NRDC changed their methodology a bit but click here if you want to see a synopsis of their findings in 2013.

Sarah B.


  1. Not sure if its true or now but heard a rumor that the bacteria in the stream may be a result of the homeless and others using the creek upstream as a bathroom and poluting it with raw sewage and human waste. This was directly from the SF Water board members during one of the recent meetings reviewing to local neighbors who will be impacted by some of the hardscape improvements to manage water runoff.

    I always see little kids playing in that creek. They really should post something there letting people know. But they really should figure out how to just clean it up.

  2. @andy – That seems pretty far fetched, considering how few homeless we have in the neighborhood, and that “using the creek upstream” is actually a lot of work because it’s hard to get to. There would have to be A LOT of that activity for it to make a measurable impact.

    Sarah B.

  3. Hi Sarah, there are several places where the creek are exposed upstream in golden gate park. I’m Just reporting what I heard at the meeting where I asked the direct question to them about the source of the contamination. The woman that made the comment was speculating and indicated that she wasn’t fully aware of the source. They were clearly more concerned about the storm drains getting overflowed at the pumping stations. We live near that area of Baker beach so we have an interest.

    I was actually just doing some more research and found a link to the final study of the phylochip analysis here:


    And in the report it pretty clearly states some facts I haven’t seen reported previously in regard to Baker Beach:


    For instance, the Baker Beach tests
    showed that the outfall from Lobos Creek was strongly influenced by specific taxa associated with
    humans and birds….. PhyloChip analysis of samples taken from Baker Beach indicated that human and bird sources contributed to the exceedances of the AB411 bacterial standards at that location.

    In the case of the Baker Beach samples, those taken at the outlet of Lobos Creek showed clear indications of bird and human sources, whereas, at a sampling point slightly more than 100 yards away, no source indicators rose above general background levels.

    Pg56 has the clear marker:

    Exceedances at Baker Beach were associated with enrichment in both human and bird identifier bacteria (Figure 11). There was no enrichment in grazer identifier bacteria. The magnitude of exceedances was greater than at other marine sites and included exceedances in both enterococcus and coliforms. The relative importance of human and bird fecal inputs cannot be determined in this study; however the high coliform counts suggest that birds are not the primary cause of exceedances at this site. At Baker Beach samples were collected in two locations. FIB were clearly transported by Lobos Creek because nearly all exceedances occurred at station #15 at the mouth of the creek. Station #16 further west down the beach rarely exceeded FIB limits. The human signal observed at this site is concerning and potential human sources along Lobos Creek need investigated.

    The last line above is pretty telling. Station #15 if you read the report is the point where the creek outlets onto Baker Beach. The whole report isn’t that interesting and most of the parts related to Baker are cited above; There are a few graphs in there. But it seems human waste is the source and it’s not kids peeing in the stream on the beach. So to be clear, there are frequently high levels of e.coli and other not so nice bacteria coming directly from the lobos creek outlet. The rest of the beach is largely fine.

  4. Lobos Creek historically is poisonous primarily because of the runoff from the Park Presidio Freeway. Supposedly the Mountain Lake Park renovation was to rectify this pollution but it does not appear that it has

  5. @Tim – Wow, I don’t think I’ve ever seen that video. I remember those houses going under but never saw the footage. Crazy stuff!

    Sarah B.

  6. If it was “dog poo” it woudl be pervasive, not tightly correlated with one site. Also, note that comment #3 includes numerous cites that all discuss human and bird waste, not dog waste. Please take your agenda elsewhere.

  7. In fact, you might be surprised, Mountain Lake being the only remaining natural lake in SF, it has long been a primary drainage point in SF (Lobos Creek). My understanding is that originally Washington Heights was some 70′ taller than today, and at the time drained primarily to Mountain Lake/Lobos Creek (some distance away). So it is a big watershed. Not sure it drains or ever did drain anything from GGP though.

  8. cfMC, Yes I would be surprised that Mountain Lake is the only remaining natural lake in SF.
    How about Pine Lake and Lake Merced? I think one or two of the lakes in the Chain of Lakes is natural.

  9. Mountain Lake is one of the few remaining natural lakes in San Francisco (the others are Lake Merced, Pine Lake west of Stern Grove and the semi-natural Chain of Lakes in Golden Gate Park).

    Sarah B.

  10. Too bad NRDC isn’t testing for radiation. Fukushima should be here by now, and I’d like to know if it’s out there.

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