Environmental Protection

NRDC Reports Beach Closing Days Down Slightly in 2008

The number of closing and advisory days at ocean, bay and Great Lakes beaches reached more than 20,000 in 2008, the fourth consecutive year, according to the 19th annual beach water quality report released July 29 by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

The report found a 10 percent decrease in closing and advisory days at beaches nationwide from 2007 but noted this drop was the result of dry conditions in many parts of the country and decreased funding for water monitoring in some states last year, rather than a sign of large-scale improvement. The decline follows two years of record-high closing and advisory days and the primary pollution source, stormwater runoff after heavy rains, continues to be a serious problem.

While there was an overall decrease from 22,571 to 20,341 days, the picture varied regionally. Dry conditions led to decreases in closings and advisories for 2008 in the Delmarva Peninsula (67 percent), Gulf of Mexico (39 percent), California and Hawaii (21 percent), and the Southeast (12 percent). Wetter than usual conditions, however, led to an increase in closing and advisory days in New England (64 percent) and the Great Lakes (13 percent).

“Pollution from dirty stormwater runoff and sewage overflows continues to make its way to our beaches. This not only makes swimmers sick – it hurts coastal economies,” said Nancy Stoner, NRDC Water Program co-director. “Americans should not suffer the consequences of contaminated beach water. From contracting the flu or pink eye, to jeopardizing millions of jobs and billions of dollars that rely on clean coasts, there are serious costs to inaction.”

Using data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, NRDC’s report, www.nrdc.org/beaches

"Testing the Waters: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches," confirms that U.S. beach waters continue to suffer from serious contamination – including human and animal waste – that can make people sick.

The report also provides a 5-star rating guide for 200 of the nation’s most popular beaches, based on indicators of beach water quality, monitoring frequency, and public notification of contamination. Five-star beaches included:

  • Gulf Shores Public Beach (Ala.),
  • Laguna Beach-Main Beach (Calif.),
  • Bolsa Chica State Beach in Huntington Beach (Calif.),
  • Newport Beach (Calif.),
  • Ocean City (Md.),
  • Park Point – Community Club Beach in Duluth (Minn.) and
  • Hampton Beach State Park in Rockingham County (N.H.).

Some of the lowest ranking beaches (1-star) were:

  • Zach’s Bay at Jones Beach State Park in Wantagh (N.Y.),
  • Ocean Beach Park in New London (Conn.),
  • Venice Public Beach (Fla.) and
  • Central Beach in Point Pleasant (N.J.).

Nationally, 7 percent of beach water samples violated health standards – indicating the presence of human or animal waste – showing no improvement from 2007 or 2006. The highest level of contamination was found in the Great Lakes, where 13 percent of beach water samples violated public health standards. In fact, from 2005-2008, the Great Lakes consistently tested the dirtiest, while the Southeast and Delmarva Peninsula proved relatively cleaner than other regions. States with the highest percentage of samples exceeding health standards in 2008 were Louisiana (29 percent), Ohio (19 percent), Indiana (18 percent) and Illinois (15 percent). Those with the lowest percent of water samples exceeding health standards last year were Delaware, New Hampshire and Virginia (all with 1 percent).

Beach water pollution makes swimmers vulnerable to a range of waterborne illnesses including stomach flu, skin rashes, pinkeye, ear, nose and throat problems, dysentery, hepatitis, respiratory ailments, neurological disorders and other serious health problems. For senior citizens, small children and people with weak immune systems, the results can be fatal.

“Nobody wants their trip to the beach to send them to the bathroom or, worse, the emergency room,” said Stoner. “It is vitally important to remember that if it has recently rained – or you see or smell a pipe discharging onto the beach – keep your head above water or avoid swimming altogether.”

The best way to protect swimmers from beach water pollution is to prevent it. Federal, state and local governments can make this a priority by requiring better controls on stormwater and sewage, the two largest known sources of beach water pollution. A key solution is to utilize low impact development techniques in communities to retain and filter rainwater where it falls, letting it soak back into the ground rather than running off into waterways. This includes strategically placed rain gardens in yards, tree boxes on city sidewalks, green roofs that use absorbent vegetation on top of buildings, and permeable pavement that allows water to penetrate the material, instead of asphalt or concrete.

The Clean Coastal Environment and Public Health Act pending in Congress would provide money for more beach water sampling and require use of faster testing methods so people get timely information about whether it is safe to swim.

For tips for a safe trip to the beach this summer, go to: http://www.nrdc.org/water/oceans/gttw.asp.

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