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San Clemente Journal

The Poop on Poche

Apr 02, 2014 06:53PM ● By Don Kindred

Faclons were brought in to clear the seagulls.

story & photos by Don Kindred

It’s actually a beautiful spot, smack in the middle of Capistrano Bay. 
To the north lie some of the counties’ most enviable addresses on the shore-lined 
enclave of Beach Road, all with an unobstructed view of the Dana Point headlands 
and the southern end of the Channel Islands. And to the south, the Shorecliffs Beach 
Club and Capistrano Shores herald the northern entrance to the playas of our 
Spanish Village. Historically, the view has too-often been marred by the 
unwelcome sign of a health warning, but recent City and 
County efforts are showing promising signs and positive grades.

According to one translation, Poche is a Spanish word for “pocket,” which would accurately describe the 200 foot span of sand at the border of San Clemente and Dana Point. The beach is actually owned by the County of Orange, who maintain it because it is home to the terminal outlet of the Prima Desheca Cañada Watershed. (I’m guessing “Poche” really came from some little kid trying to pronounce Prima Desheca.)  

The watershed is a three-mile, 4,400-acre network of storm drains, canyon and urban runoff that meanders its way to the shore at Poche Beach, the confluence of which contributes to the areas distinction as one of the most polluted beaches in the state. It’s not news that Poche has been a Top 10 regular on Heal the Bay’s Annual Beach Report Card known as the “Beach Bummer List” for a decade. Last year ranking an unenviable third, just seven steps worse than the Tijuana River Mouth. 

Although the outlet is technically property of the County of Orange, sharing a coastal boarder with Dana Point, no one argues that the watershed is entirely within San Clemente borders. Thus the city has stood up to the problem and joined in seeking solutions. Recent facilities, studies, approvals and action plans are showing signs of a brighter future for the embattled pocket of shoreline. 

The Poche Clean Beach Project
The city took progressive steps beginning 11-years-ago, when the citizens of San Clemente actually voted three to one in favor of a tax that would fund the actions needed to keep the ocean clean and minimalize the impact of development on the water we play in. The fund helped the city contribute to the following efforts to keep Poche and all of San Clemente beaches off the Beach Bummer list.

• The County of Orange, under the State Clean Beaches Initiative Program and with other project sponsors, constructed an urban runoff treatment facility to treat dry weather runoff from Prima Deshecha Channel before it discharges into the surf zone at Poche Beach. The total project cost was about $3 million and project sponsors included the California State Water Resources Control Board ($1.5 million), County of Orange ($750,000), City of San Clemente ($500,000), and Miocean ($250,000). The facility is being operated by the South Coast Water District on behalf of the County. By most accounts the treatment facility was effective, but bad grades persisted.

• Next, San Clemente city staff initiated the Prima Deshecha/Poche Watershed Bacteria Source Identification Study. The 2010 study was aimed at discovering where the source of the bad grades was coming from and recommend ways to fix them. The study came back with three recommendations: 

1) Reduce irrigation flow contributions into the watershed. (Don’t overwater).
2) Address the pond at Poche beach. The depth of the ponded water at Poche provides an optimum opportunity for bacteria growth.
3) Reduce the impact of birds (read ‘bird poop’) at the beach. Molecular studies indicate that gulls are the source of bacteria detected in the ocean .
All three are being assessed. Current readings show that the treatment facility is 97% effective for the water flowing from the watershed.
The county pursued a permit to reduce the depth of the pond by opening up the berm that tends to get pushed up from storms and tidal activity. In addition to creating a “scour pond” the sand would keep the water level up to where beach goers couldn’t use the underpass (catwalk) beneath Coast Highway.

Long time Shorecliffs resident Dick Dickie, and his wife, Beryl, lend a historical perspective. In the ‘60s they were among the proud homeowners in the new Shorecliffs development directly east of Poche. 

“That beach was our meeting place on Friday nights,” he recalls, “we’d get together after work to surf, or a few of us would snorkel out and catch some bugs and dive for abalone at the Poche reef, come back and cook ‘em on the beach with our families, but that channel has always been a problem.”

We discussed how a current permit to drain the berm involved the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board, California Coastal Commission, Orange County Watersheds, Orange County Parks, and City of San Clemente. 

Dickie laughs, “Back then it only took one phone call,” he says, “someone would dial up and say, ‘there’s a storm coming,’ and we’d grab some beer and shovels and go down to open up that berm. Otherwise we wouldn’t be able to use the underpass, which was our only access to the beach.

“As long as the channel was shallow, the water quality was better, too. The county just got a permit to do that on an as needed basis, but they do it with a tractor now,” he laughs.
Paige Foreman, a former ten-year board member of the Shorecliffs homeowners association shared her difficulties of dealing with all the separate entities who now have a stake in the coastal watershed during her involvement. “Things ae different, getting things done can be overwhelming, dealing with all these out of town agencies, they tend to push blame on each other and some of them have never even been here.” She adds, “San Clemente is thankful for (Assistant City Engineer) Tom Bonigut, he goes up against those guys. We’ve been able to show some progress now, with the grading.”
So it all point to the birds.

The freshwater outlet is a strong attraction not only for migratory birds but also a large flock of seagulls that migrate from the dump in San Juan to the tide line of Poche on a daily basis. Efforts to clear the area of seagulls included the installation of ultrasonic speakers to drive them away, which worked at first but now it seems they have adapted and returned.
Mary Vondrak, Environmental Analyst for the City of San Clemente says the bacteria testing has confirmed that the gulls are the main source of pollution, “Bacteria testing at Poche showed periodically elevated results from the end of May through the end of July.  During this period we also observed an increase in the gull population congregating at Poche. Since the Bacteria Identification Study performed in the watershed identified gulls through molecular markers as the primary contributor of bacteria in the ocean, the City contracted with a falconer to see if discouraging gulls from the area would improve test results. Tests for bacteria have come back low ever since. The posting was removed on August 25th. The Falconry contract ended in September. As of the end of October, Poche was rated with a grade of A+ by Heal the Bay.”
Whether this will be a permanent solution remains to be seen.

Susan Broder, Senior Coastal Engineer for OC Parks shares a positive view.
“Things are going smoothly with the permit. We have been able to keep up with the need for clearing the outlet during the summer, except a few times when the grunion were present. There are also times that we are not able to do anything about the catwalk (underpass) being flooded at extreme high tides because of the low elevation of the catwalk, but the rangers monitor it daily and report back if action is needed. The water quality has been great and Poche Beach hasn’t been posted in at least 3 months. (Although I think this has been due to the falconer and the reduction in birds).  We have been trying to grade the outlet so the water does not pond as much. This is better for water quality, too. I think all of the efforts with the treatment plant, the outlet maintenance and the bird population reduction have come together to produce a huge improvement at Poche Beach.” 

Jay Longley, a close neighbor on Beach Road, has watched the work at Poche, “I think all these efforts are a good thing, but we’ll have to keep trying more. The birds come back when the falcons are gone and they seem to be getting used to the ultrasonic system. So I’m sure we’ll have to keep trying. The cause seems to be narrowed down to the birds now … I think we’ll get there. I’d like to see the dry weather run-off that is treated by the UV to be returned to the sewer so it can be re-used on golf courses and parkways. But I feel the whole community is behind finding a solution to the Poche problem, and that’s a good thing.b

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