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Pollution Still Plagues Most US Beach Waters and the Great Lakes

In 2011 America’s Beaches Saw the Third-Highest Number of Closing and Advisory Days in Over Two Decades

As a kid, summer meant one thing to me: long, lazy days at Hampton Beach in Rockingham, New Hampshire. Luckily for me, Hampton Beach consistently scores well on beach water quality reports. Unfortunately for others, many popular beaches across the US don't fare as well.

Photo by Tony AlterHuntington Beach, CA. One of the 12 beaches that received a five star rating from NRDC.

The Natural Resources Defense Council’s annual beach water quality report, released today, finds that stormwater runoff and sewage pollution still plagues most US beach waters and the Great Lakes. The report, titled Testing the Waters: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches, notes that last year America’s beaches saw the third-highest number of closing and advisory days in more than two decades.

The report analyzes water quality monitoring and reporting in 30 coastal and Great Lake states. Each state is ranked based on the total number of beach closings and advisories issued in 2011, the frequency of water testing, and how well state and local authorities communicate violations of health standards to the public. It also provides a 5-star rating guide to 200 of the nation’s popular beaches and highlights a dozen best beaches as well as the worst 15 “Repeat Offenders” that repeatedly test for chronically high bacteria counts.

Most useful is the report’s newest feature: an interactive map with zip code search functionality so you can check the water quality of your local beach. Just type in your zip code for detailed information about sources of pollution and monitoring practices at nearby beaches. My local Hampton Beach was one of a dozen beaches to receive a five-star rating for water quality, monitoring, and reporting. But nearby York Beach in Maine only scored one.

Beach closings and advisories are issued when high levels of bacteria are detected in the water. These bacteria indicate the presence of pathogens that pose a threat to human health. Common sources of this pollution include storm water runoff after heavy rain, untreated or partially treated discharges from sewage treatment systems, wildlife and pet waste on the beach, and other ‘miscellaneous’ sources like boat discharges or oil spills. Pretty gross.

Current health standards for beach waters are based on how often they cause gastrointestinal illnesses like diarrhea and the flu. Beachgoers can also contract pinkeye, skin rashes, respiratory infections, meningitis, and hepatitis from contaminated waters. The acceptable limit is for one in 28 beachgoers to get sick after a day at the beach, a measure that dates back to 1986.

The NRDC found that in 2011, 23,481 closings and advisories were issued in beaches across America, two-thirds of which were attributed to bacteria levels exceeding US Environmental Protection Agency standards. That’s actually 3 percent fewer closings than in 2010, which had the second highest number of closings in the 22 years the NRDC has been conducting this report.

Great Lakes beaches showed up dirtiest with 11 percent of samples testing for higher level of contaminants than EPA standards. In contrast, only 6 percent of Gulf Coast waters were contaminated with harmful bacteria.

The problem is, many beaches aren’t tested daily for contamination levels. This means  hundreds of people could swim in pathogen-laden waters before an advisory is issued or the beach is closed down. With no national protocol protecting beachgoers, finding out if your beach is safe can be problematic.

“Some folks are very aggressive about looking for pollution sources. This is a responsible practice,” says NRDC senior attorney John Devine. “Luckily, today more than ever, we know that much of this filth is preventable and we can turn the tide against water pollution by establishing better beachwater quality standards and putting untapped 21st century solutions in place.”

The NRDC report urges the EPA and Congress to adopt stricter national water quality standards. Cities are likewise encouraged to take action by implementing “green infrastructure” on land – like porous pavement, green roofs, parks, roadside plantings and rain barrels – to prevent storm water runoff from carrying pollutants into the ocean and lakes.

Although it is up to state and local governments to regularly test and report beach water quality, there are some government programs that help. The Beach Environment Assessment and Coastal Health Program awards grants to coastal and Great Lake states, territories, and tribes to develop and implement beach monitoring and notification programs. This year, almost $10 million dollars went to 38 eligible groups. In addition to awarding grants, the BEACH program also seeks to strengthen water standards and testing, develop faster laboratory test methods, and inform the public about coastal health.

Other groups encourage local efforts to maintain and preserve coastal environments. Cities like San Diego are taking the initiative and asking for volunteers to clean up beaches after Fourth of July celebrations. Heal the Bay compiles its own weekly beach report card for 650 beaches in California, Oregon, and Washington. NOAA’s State of the Coast provides statistics about water use, coastal economies, and coastal health to deepen appreciation for America’s coastal resources.

However, a clean, safe day at the beach really starts with a clean backyard. You can help by directing rainwater runoff onto the soil of your property instead of the street so it doesn’t overload storm systems. Clean up after your pet. Be a steward of the beach – clean up your picnic garbage. Don’t feed the wildlife. Keep yourself safe by checking for advisories and avoiding beaches near discharge pipes. Don’t swim after a heavy rainfall, as that is when pollution is at its worst.

In the words of the NRDC, “make sure a day at the beach does not end up a night at the hospital.”

Five Star Beaches:
  • California: Newport Beach in Orange County (2 of 3 monitored sections)
    • Newport Beach – 38th Street
    • Newport Beach – 52nd/53rd Street
  • California: Bolsa Chica Beach in Orange County
  • California: Huntington State Beach in Orange County
  • Alabama: Gulf Shores Public Beach in Baldwin County
  • Alabama: Gulf State Park Pavilion in Baldwin County
  • Delaware: Dewey Beach in Sussex County
  • Maryland: Ocean City at Beach 6 in Worcester County
  • Minnesota: Park Point Franklin Park / 13th Street South Beach Park Point in St. Louis County
  • Minnesota: Lafayette Community Club Beach in St. Louis County
  • New Hampshire: Hampton Beach State Park in Rockingham County
  • New Hampshire: Wallis Sands Beach in Rockingham County
  • Texas: South Padre Island in Cameron County
Repeat Offenders:
  • California: Avalon Beach in Los Angeles County (3 of 5 monitored sections):
    • Avalon Beach – West of Green Pleasure Pier (50 feet)
    • Avalon Beach – West of Green Pleasure Pier (100 feet)
    • Avalon Beach – East of Green Pleasure Pier
  • California: Doheny State Beach in Orange County (3 of 6 monitored sections):
    • Doheny State Beach – North of San Juan Creek
    • Doheny State Beach – Surfzone at Outfall
    • Doheny State Beach – 1000' South Outfall
  • Illinois: Winnetka Elder Park Beach in Cook County
  • Illinois: North Point Marina North Beach in Lake County
  • Louisiana: Constance Beach in Cameron County
  • Louisiana: Gulf Breeze in Cameron County
  • Louisiana: Little Florida in Cameron County
  • Louisiana: Long Beach in Cameron County
  • Louisiana: Rutherford Beach in Cameron County
  • New Jersey: Beachwood Beach West in Ocean County
  • New York: Woodlawn Beach - Woodlawn Beach State Park in Erie County
  • New York: Ontario Beach in Monroe County
  • Ohio: Euclid State Park in Cuyahoga County
  • Ohio: Villa Angela State Park in Cuyahoga County
  • Wisconsin: South Shore Beach in Milwaukee County

Nicky Ouellet
After teaching English for three years in Russia and on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Nicky now writes for the Earth Island Journal.

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The oceans also pick up stuff that drops from the sky, such as those festive helium-filled balloons. We’ve spent many a vacation day at the beach picking up the remnants of graduation ceremony detritus.

By Katie McDonald on Fri, June 29, 2012 at 7:41 am

It is ridiculous and infuriating that we even have to think about water quality at the ocean. How has one person in thirty getting sick from a day at the each become a measure of quality?!?

By Rene on Wed, June 27, 2012 at 7:30 pm

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