The water at the Pismo Beach pier has been on a danger list for some time, most recently making an appearance on the non-profit organization Heal the Bay’s top 10 list of most polluted beaches in California. Although Pismo is a popular surfing spot, the water is often tainted with deadly bacteria, forcing the beach’s closure to swimming.

Now the city of Pismo Beach is turning to a group of Cal Poly professors to find out why. Using a $666,368 grant, courtesy of a program mandated by Proposition 50 and passed by California voters in 2002, an in-depth DNA source analysis of the pollution was commissioned.

Headed by biology professor Chris Kitts, the project harnesses the efforts of 25 individuals working at Cal Poly, both in the lab and in the field collecting water samples in the lagoon and around the pier. In addition to the graduate and undergraduate students working on the study, biology instructors Mark Moline, Marie Yeung, Michael Black and statistician Andrew Schaffer are bringing diverse elements to the project.

“The goals of the city in this study are two-fold,” said Dennis Delzeit, Pismo Beach’s city engineer and public works director. “We hope to find the problem, and we’re using Dr. Kitts and the other professors from Cal Poly to do that, and to correct the problem, whatever it turns out to be.”

The mechanics of the investigation range from the 60 days of daily sampling, which began on June 26, to the mapping of ocean currents using an acoustic doppler radar device now installed at the end of the pier.

But ask Professor Kitts the subject of his research and the answer is “pigeon poop.”

“So far, (the highest pollution level) looks like it’s correlating to the spring tide,” he said. “That’s the highest high tide on about a two-week cycle. So once every fortnight the levels spike. We’re going to be collecting E. Coli and finger printing them, looking for specific kinds of bacteria. There are very specific markers for humans, cows, dogs, and we’re working on horses.”

While there are no specific markers to identify pigeons as the culprit, Kitts informed the Pismo Beach City Council during his first quarterly report Tuesday that the sourcing includes compiling a “Fecal Source Library Collection” and contracting with a Seattle company for access to more avian samples.

As part of the project’s historical data analysis, he also said that the correlation of high tide to high bacteria levels might point to contamination in the beach sand itself. Other theories, such as the fracture of a sunken sewer line are unlikely, as there has been no evidence of human fecal contamination in the sampling thus far.

Pismo Beach Mayor Mary Ann Reiss praised the first report and said it was “making a lot of progress.”

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