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Keller Beach

Keller Beach is popular with swimmers despite history of poor water quality

on September 9, 2021

The sound of waves sliding across the sand, children laughing, and people talking permeated Richmond’s Keller Beach on a warm Saturday afternoon in late August.

Paddle boarders and swimmers dotted the ocean, with children splashing closer to shore. Seaweed dried on the beach, its scent mingling with that of food simmering on a grill.

The water was warm and calm, said Christina Kossa, who lives in Berkeley and has been swimming in the bay for about eight years.

It was also a good day for a barbecue, said Gloria Aparicio, grilling chicken and vegetables for her family.

Before beach goers reach a short wooden staircase that descends into the warm sand, they pass a series of warnings: “Keep bay water out of your mouth.”
“After you leave the water, shower and towel dry as soon as possible.”
“Do not swim in the bay for three days after a rainstorm.”

The beach sits between the Chevron Refinery, California’s third largest in barrels of oil per day, and Richmond’s sewage treatment plant. Water quality fluctuates frequently at Keller Beach. The East Bay Regional Park District, which oversees Keller Beach, tests the water weekly in spring and summer.

Some years, the news is good, with nearly all of the tests showing a passing level of contaminants. But in other years — including 2016, 2017, 2019 and 2020 — the water posted more failing than passing levels. Coliform, which includes bacteria in human and animal fecal matter, has been an issue.

On this beach day, the water quality was considered safe. When coliform levels are high, the park district closes the beach. In the winter, when tests are less frequent, swimmers should heed the signs.

Hal MacLean, the district’s water management supervisor, said that because stormwater runoff tends to deposit more bacteria into the bay, the district recommends that people wait 72 hours after a storm before swimming.

In September 2020, Contra Costa County health officials urged residents to avoid the beach for several weeks because of an increased risk of “swimmers itch,” a skin irritation caused by tiny organisms in the water.

In 2019, Keller was among 10 “Beach Bummers,” a designation created by environmental advocacy group Heal the Bay, which has ranked California’s beaches in terms of water quality and safety annually since 1990. (Keller did not make the 2020 bummer list.)

According to the 2019 Heal the Bay report, poor water circulation and seagrasses can influence how long a pollutant stays in a body of water. While the calm water at Keller Beach attracts families, it also creates conditions that can allow pollutants to build.

Those enjoying the beach on this August Saturday, said they wished it was cleaner.

“I like to come here,” Aparicio said. “I like this beach, kids can play around. But the only thing I don’t like is the dirt and the algae on the beach.”

She also is apprehensive about eating fish caught there.

Those who enjoy Keller Beach at least know that the water there is regularly tested, which isn’t the case at other nearby beaches.

Keller is the only Contra Costa County beach listed in recent Heal the Bay reports. Those searching for water quality information at nearby Point Molate Beach, also popular with swimmers, won’t find weekly data.

You can monitor water quality at Keller Beach at ebparks.org.

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