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Planning a Day at the Beach? Check the Water Quality First

Ten percent of America’s beach waters fail to meet EPA’s new safety standards, says NRDC report

Towel, check! Sunscreen, check! Flip flops, check! Water quality testing kit, check? According to a report released today, summer getaways to the sandy shoreline may be more damaging to personal health than good.

The Natural Resources Defense Council’s 24th annual beach report, Testing the Waters, has found that 10 percent of all water quality samples collected last year contained bacteria levels that failed to meet the US Environmental Protection Agency’s new benchmark for swimmer safety. Samples were collected from nearly 3,500 US coastal and Great Lakes beaches. The findings confirm that serious water pollution persists at many American shores.

A busy beach scenePhoto by courtesy NRDCThe beach at Tybee Island North in Georgia's Chatham County made it to this year's superstar list. The report uses the EPA’s newly-created “Beach Action Value” as a benchmark.

Using the EPA’s newly-created “Beach Action Value” (BAV) as a benchmark, the report identified 35 popular “superstar” beaches with excellent water quality, and flagged 17 “repeat offenders” that exhibited chronic water pollution problems. (See chart)

According to the EPA, 3.5 million Americans contract illness from contact with raw sewage in public recreational waters each year. Many public health experts predict, however, that this number is actually much higher. “People who get sick from swimming in polluted recreational waters are not always aware of the cause of their illness and do not report it to doctors or local health officials,” the report states.

The main source of beach water contamination in the United States is storm water runoff. After big rainstorms, overworked drainage systems overflow and untreated sewage seeps into nearby waterways, placing beachgoers at acute risk of bacterial and viral disease. Children, the elderly, and pregnant women are most susceptible to illness from beach water pollution.

When deciding whether to issue precautionary public health warnings prior to 2013, state beach authorities relied on set, and rather lax, EPA water quality standards. These standards were inadequate, the report says. Under the old benchmarks, the EPA found it acceptable for 36 out of every 1,000 beachgoers to become ill with gastroenteritis, an intestinal and stomach infection that causes vomiting, nausea, and/or stomachache.

The EPA’s new Beach Action Value is lower than the value previously used, reducing the acceptable risk of exposure to 32 out of every 1,000 beachgoers. The BAV is not regulatory and only meant to provide guidance for state beaches on when to post health advisories. The EPA refers to the BAV as “a conservative, precautionary tool for making beach notification decisions.” The standard is not, however, legally enforceable.

This places great weight on individual beachgoers to research water quality prior to trips to the lake or sea. The NRDC offers an online, interactive map allowing people to view a list of “superstar” beaches with excellent water quality and “repeat-offenders” with consistent pollution problems. Users can also search for specific beach water quality reports based on zip code.

Although the NRDC fully supports a strict preemptive health warning system, the council’s 2014 report stresses a dire need for action beyond advisories. “Beach water pollution comes from somewhere, and that somewhere is often upstream. That makes tributaries and other upstream water bodies critical to the water quality downstream, including at the beach,” says Jon Devine, a senior attorney with NRDC’s water program

Green infrastructure and wetlands restoration will help buffer beaches from toxic sewage runoff. “The best way of avoiding runoff-related pollution is to reduce the volume of storm water flowing into the storm drains that carry it to nearby water bodies,” the report says. Infrastructure that mimics natural conditions of rainwater infiltration such as porous pavement, green roofs, parks, roadside plantings, and rain barrels can help prevent drainage overflow.

In addition to green infrastructure, the report also urges citizens and the powers-that-be to petition for passage of the US Army Corps of Engineers and EPA’s proposed Clean Water Protection Rule. The new rule would strengthen pollution safeguards for nearly two million miles of streams and millions of acres of wetlands connected to larger bodies of water. If this proposed amendment to the 1972 Clean Water Act is implemented, watershed drainage basins, such as oceans and other large bodies of water, will be more adequately protected from upstream agriculture and sewage runoff.

“Wetlands can absorb and even treat storm water runoff, which we know after years of doing this report, is perennially the most significant contributor to beach water pollution,” Devine says. “The Clean Water Protection Rule will protect the streams and wetlands that help filter out contaminants and prevent polluted runoff that affect America’s beaches.”

If the stricter BAV benchmark is observed and new federal policies are passed, the NRDC believes beach water quality will improve. “Because federal focus on water quality has, at best, stagnated,” Devine says, “we really need new policy to move us forward.”

The passage of improved regulation may provide that peace of mind necessary for a day of rejuvenation and respite by the summertime sea.

The Nation’s 35 “Superstar” Beaches

NRDC designated 35 popular beaches across 14 states as “superstars” – popular beaches for consistently meeting water quality safety thresholds. Each of these beaches met national water quality benchmarks 98% of the time over the past five years:

Alabama Gulf Shores Public Beach in Baldwin County
Alabama Gulf State Park Pavilion in Baldwin County
Alabama Dauphin Island Public Beach
California Newport Beach in Orange County (1 of 3 monitored sections):
Newport Beach – 38th Street
Delaware Dewey Beach-Swedes in Sussex County
Florida Bowman's Beach in Lee County
Florida Coquina Beach South in Manatee County
Florida Fort Desoto North Beach in Pinellas County
Georgia Tybee Island North in Chatham County
Hawaii Hapuna Beach St. Rec. Area in Big Island
Hawaii Po‘ipu Beach Park in Kauai
Hawaii Wailea Beach Park in Maui
Massachusetts Singing Beach in Essex County
Maryland Point Lookout State Park in St. Mary’s County
Maryland Assateague State Park in Worcester County
North Carolina Ocean Pier at Main St. and Sunset Blvd. in Brunswick County
North Carolina Beach at Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in Dare County
North Carolina Ocean Pier at Salisbury Street in Wrightsville Beach in New Hanover
North Carolina Ocean Pier at Ocean Blvd. and Crews Ave. in Topsail Beach in Pender County
New Hampshire Hampton Beach State Park in Rockingham County
New Hampshire Wallis Sands Beach at Wallis Rd. in Rockingham County
New Hampshire Wallis Sands State Park in Rockingham County
New Jersey Washington (Margate) in Atlantic County
New Jersey 40th St. (Avalon) in Cape May County
New Jersey 40th St. (Sea Isle City) in Cape May County
New Jersey Stone Harbor at 96th St. in Cape May County
New Jersey Upper Township at Webster Rd. in Cape May County
New Jersey Wildwood Crest at Orchid in Cape May County
New Jersey Broadway (Pt. Pleasant Beach) in Ocean County
New York Long Beach City in Nassau County
Virginia Virginia Beach at 28th St. in Virginia Beach County
Virginia Virginia Beach at 45th St. in Virginia Beach County
Virginia Back Bay Beach in Virginia Beach County
Virginia Virginia Beach – Little Island Beach North in Virginia Beach County
Washington Westhaven State Park, South Jetty in Grays Harbor
The Nation’s 17 “Repeat Offenders”

Over the last five years of this report, sections of 17 U.S. beaches have stood out as having persistent contamination problems, with water samples failing to meet public health benchmarks more than 25 percent of the time each year from 2009 to 2013 

California Malibu Pier, 50 yards east of the pier, in Los Angeles County
Indiana Jeorse Park Beach in Lake County (both monitored sections):
Lake Jeorse Park Beach I
Lake Jeorse Park Beach II
Massachusetts Cockle Cove Creek in Barnstable County
Maine Goodies Beach in Knox County
New Jersey Beachwood Beach in Ocean County
New York Main Street Beach in Chautauqua County
New York Wright Park – East in Chautauqua County
New York Ontario Beach in Monroe County
Ohio Lakeshore Park in Ashtabula County
Ohio Arcadia Beach in Cuyahoga County
Ohio Euclid State Park in Cuyahoga County
Ohio Noble Beach in Cuyahoga County
Ohio Sims Beach in Cuyahoga County
Ohio Villa Angela State Park in Cuyahoga County
Ohio Edson Creek in Erie County
Wisconsin South Shore Beach in Milwaukee County

Important note: some of these beaches have multiple sections that are tested for water quality, and in some instances only certain sections of a beach qualified for the repeat offender list.

Hanna MorrisHanna Morris photo
Hanna Morris is an intern at Earth Island Journal. She is studying Society and Environment with a focus in Global Environmental Politics at the University of California, Berkeley. Hanna is the communications director for the UC Berkeley Student Environmental Resource Center and founder of the Communicating Sustainability DeCAL.

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