County marine reserve on mend 

Increased water monitoring and quick action to track down and end bacterial discharges into one of the county’s pristine wildlife sanctuaries has resulted in a dramatic improvement in water quality at Fitzgerald Marine Reserve.

The popular reserve, near the coastal community of Moss Beach, has seen a 60 percent drop in the number of beach warnings posted compared to 2001, according to Dean Peterson, director of environmental health for San Mateo County.

"We have seen a vast improvement in the water quality," Peterson said.

The reserve is home to a variety of seaweed, crabs, sponges, sea stars, mollusks and fish, many of which can be viewed by walking through the easily accessible intertidal pools. An estimated 130,000 local residents and travelers visit the beach each year, according to officials.

The greatest danger to visitors in recent years has been coliform and E. coli bacterial contamination — which comes from animal and human feces — found all too often in the waters of the reserve and south to Pillar Point Harbor, Peterson said.

Exposure to the bacteria has been known to result in the contraction of hepatitis or influenza, Peterson said.

Aside from the thousands of schoolchildren and tourists who visit the reserve, residents who buy fish directly off the docks and surfers could also be at risk, said Carolann Towe, of the nonprofit environmental group Surfrider Foundation. Towe monitors the water quality in the area on a weekly basis.

From a high that exceeded the state standard for contaminants by 60 times back in 2001, she has seen the numbers plunge to within what the state allows, Towe said.

Working with horse ranchers, clearing out homeless camps along San Vicente Creek — which runs into the reserve — and sealing off two illicit residential sewer overflow pipes that drained into the creek have made a tremendous difference, Peterson said.

Rich Allen, a coast side rancher, was one of those who worked with the county and Towe, to move fences and horse paddocks to prevent manure from running off in San Vincente Creek, which ultimately empties into the reserve.

"We realized that we had to make sure that the water that leaves our ranch is just as clean as the water the runs into it," Allen told The Examiner on Friday.

In 2005, the reserve was designated one of 36 "critical coastal areas" in the Bay Area, leading to a handful of organizations turning their focus toward tracking down and measuring runoff contaminants, Al Wanger of the California Coastal Commission said.

In Fitzgerald Marine Reserve’s case, development in nearby Montara also plays a role, Wanger said. "One of the largest threats to coast and ocean is runoff, and that’s what this program is trying to get at."

A major goal of the critical coastal areas program is to develop a comprehensive plan to tackle water runoff, preventing it or using natural filters such as plants and culverts to clean the water before it makes its way to the coast, said Kelly Nelson, executive director of the San Mateo County Resource Conservation District.

But such a plan may still be a year or two away, as local governments, environmentalists and local residents work to identify pollution sources and find the best ways to put a voluntary stop to them, Wanger said.

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