The water at American beaches was unsafe for swimming a record number of days last year, according to the 17th annual beach water quality report released by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Using data just collected from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the report, “Testing the Waters: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches,” tallied more than 25,000 closing and health advisory days at ocean, bay and Great Lakes beaches in 2006. The number of no-swim days caused by stormwater more than doubled from the year before.
“Vacations are being ruined. Families can’t use the beaches in their own communities because they are polluted. Kids are getting sick – all because of sewage and contaminated runoff from outdated, under-funded treatment systems,” said Nancy Stoner, director of NRDC’s water program.
In addition to compiling data on 3,500 U.S. beaches, the report this year takes an especially close look at the nation’s highest risk beaches – those that are either very popular, very close to pollution sources, or both.
Of those highest risk beaches, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Rhode Island, and Minnesota ranked the worst for failing to meet national health standards. This new area of focus is the result of a peer review process NRDC undertook with five professionals from local and state health agencies, academia, and the research community.
Aging and poorly-designed sewage and storm water systems hold much of the blame for beach water pollution. The problem was compounded by record rainfall, which added to the strain on already overloaded infrastructure. The authors also say that careless urban sprawl in coastal areas is devouring wetlands and other natural buffers such as dunes and beach grass that would otherwise help filter out dangerous pollution.
“A summer rainstorm should not have to mean that endless amounts of pollution are washed down to the beach, or that sewers will overflow. We can fix leaky pipes; we can require costal developers to maintain vegetation to absorb rain. The solutions are out there,” Stoner said.
Sewage spills and overflows caused 1,301 beach closing and advisory days in 2006, an increase of 402 days from 2005. Elevated bacteria levels from miscellaneous sources, such as boat discharges or wildlife, accounted for 410 closing and advisory days, an increase of 77 days from 2005. In addition, more than 14,000 closing and advisory days were due to unknown sources of pollution.
Not only are the beaches polluted, the way they are tested is also failing the American public, according to NRDC public health and water experts. The current beach water quality standards are 20 years old and rely on obsolete monitoring methods and outdated science that leave beachgoers vulnerable to a range of waterborne illnesses. Risks include gastroenteritis, dysentery, hepatitis, respiratory ailments and other serious health problems. For senior citizens, small children, and people with weak immune systems, the results can be fatal.
“What this report means for families heading to the beach this weekend is that they need to be careful. That means they need to do a little homework,” said Stoner. “Call your local public health authority. Ask them if the beachwater is safe for swimming. And there is any doubt, or if the water smells bad or looks dirty, stay out of it.”
Beach Buddies and Beach Bums
Based on the report’s findings, NRDC recently announced the best and worst beaches for protecting beachgoers from contaminated water. This year there are 13 Beach Buddies, six Beach Bums, and for the first time, a Beach Hero.
Beach buddy beaches have:
- Monitored beach water quality regularly
- Violated public health standards less than 10 percent of the time
- Took significant steps to reduce pollution
Beach buddy beaches are:
- North Carolina: Kure Beach and Kill Devil HillsBeach
- Wisconsin: Sister Bay Beach and North Beach
- California: Laguna Beach
- Michigan: Grand Haven City Beach and Grand Haven State Park beaches
- Maine: Libby Cove, Mother’s, Middle, Cape Neddick, Short Sands and York Harbor beaches
- Dr. Carl Berg
For the first time this year NRDC is recognizing an individual as a Beach Hero. Dr. Carl Berg of Hawaii, a marine ecologist and long-time water quality champion, was nominated as a Beach Buddy by the staff of the Hawaii Department of Health for his work with the Hanalei Heritage River organization and the Hanalei Watershed Hui. Dr. Berg worked to set up monitoring programs for the beaches, rivers and streams of Hanalei Bay and to protect them by replacing cesspools on beach parks and on private land along the river, working with farmers to reduce sediment discharge, and developing best practices to protect the upper watershed.
Beach bum beaches have:
- Violated public health standards 51 percent or more of the time samples were taken
Beach bum beaches are:
- California: Avalon Beach (north of Green Pleasure Pier) (53%) and Venice State Beach (57%)
- Maryland: Hacks Point (60%) and Bay Country Campground and Beach (56%)
- New Jersey: Beachwood Beach West (60%)
- Illinois: Jackson Park Beach (54%)
About the 2007 Beach Protection Act
In May, the Beach Protection Act of 2007 (H.R. 2537/S. 1506) was introduced in the U.S. Congress, reauthorizing the Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act (BEACH Act) of 2000. If passed, the Act will mandate the use of rapid testing methods to detect beach water contamination in two hours or less so that beachgoers can be notified of public health risks promptly.
The Act will also increase the amount of grant money available to states from $30 million to $60 million annually through 2012, and expand the uses of grant funds to include source tracking and pollution prevention.
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