Heading to the beach? The San Luis Obispo Surfrider Foundation chapter wants to inform beach-goers of current bacteria and pollution levels before they make weekend plans.

The Blue Water Task Force (BWTF) is a program within the Surfrider Foundation that tests and monitors water quality throughout San Luis Obispo. Their goal is to identify problem areas in the county that indicate beach and coastal water pollution, then raise environmental awareness by identifying the sources of that pollution.

The San Luis Obispo Health Agency also tests and monitors water qualityBut according to San Luis Obispo BWTF Coordinator Niel Dilworth, the county has a different goal than the Surfrider Foundation.

“The county samples places like San Simeon where there is hardly anybody in the water, [which] can help develop a really nice amount of data about the general health of the environment all up and down the coast and the county,” Dilworth said. “What we’re looking at really is sampling places where we’ll have a direct impact on people going into the water.”

Volunteers with the BWTF collect water samples from sites that are considered popular beach spots. Each week, volunteers collect samples from 14 different locations along the Central Coast, from Cayucos Pier to Pismo Beach.

Volunteers collect water samples weekly in order to monitor bacteria levels. Blue Water Task Force | Courtesy

Volunteers then take the water samples to the Central Coast Aquarium for testing, where they are combined with a chemical solution and placed in an incubator to be analyzed later.

The samples are tested for signs of enterococcus, a bacteria that indicates fecal waste. According to Dilworth, Enterococcus also signals the presence of other viruses and pollutants and can lead to infections.

“We’ve had numerous instances here in San Luis Obispo County — particularly related to rain events — where the water quality is upwards of several hundred times the state’s safe[ty] standard for human contact,” Dilworth said. “If you ingested any of that water, you would get ill, and if you happened to be a child or elderly [person] or have a compromised immune system, it could be much worse than the case of the flu.”

The collected data is posted online every Friday. Dilworth said the BWTF wants to help the public make an informed decision about going to the beach.

“Personally … I think there’s more real hazard from bacteria than big fish. The big fish are more predictable,” Dilworth said. “It’s the high bacteria at some of our local beaches that occur more frequently and are potentially more hazardous to a lot more people.”

BWTF volunteer Jenni Metzger said she hopes the collected data will help advocate for solutions to improve water pollution.

“I think getting actual data and collecting data over time will hopefully help with either funding for future projects or it’ll have the proof that some of the agencies need [to prove] that there is something going on and it’s worth doing something [about],” Metzger said.

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