Human Impacts—Huntington Beach Case Study

Summary: When bacterial concentration measurements in coastal waters exceed levels considered safe for recreation, beaches may be closed to protect the public. In this case study, students follow the story of a bacterial contamination problem in Huntington Beach, California

Concepts to teach: Bacterial contamination, sewage treatment outflow, water quality regulation

Goals: Students recognize that determining the entity responsible for causing a real life water quality problem can be confusing and complex. Scientific evidence is used to better understand the problem and come up with management solutions.

H.4D.3, H.4D.6
SS.HS.SA.01, SS.HS.SA.02, SS.HS.SA.03, SS.HS.SA.04, SS.HS.SA.05, SS.HS.SA.06

Specific Objectives:

  1. Identify multiple potential sources for the bacteria found on Huntington Beach.
  2. Use scientific data to describe why or why not a given potential source is responsible for the contamination.
  3. Describe what resource managers need to know in order to make effective decisions.

Activity Links and Resources:

  • Bacterial Contamination on Beaches—These detailed lesson plans from independent oceanographer Cynthia Cudaback tells the story of bacterial contamination in Huntington Beach, California. Students progressively analyze data to try to figure out the source of contamination and possible remedies.
    • Teachers or students may use this model as a framework for telling similar local story.
    • Debate/discussion/role play: Students play the role of a given stakeholder, and must use available scientific evidence to make recommendations to the sanitation district Board of Control.
  • Testing the Waters—NRDC report on the status of Oregon’s recreational water testing program, released June 2011
  • Caffeinated Coastal Waters —Portland State University reports on a NOAA funded study that found elevated levels of caffeine in Oregon coastal waters, although not necessarily where expected
  • See the Real Time Data topic guide for ways to collect data about bacterial counts on Oregon beaches


  • Assessments included in the Bacterial Contamination on Beaches lesson plans.
  • Identify and characterize a local water quality issue that, like the Huntington Beach example, involves a variety of stakeholders and decision points.