EPA, Environmental Group Differ On Beach Quality

Is the health of the nation's beaches getting better or worse? It depends on whom you ask.

EPA officials are encouraged by the increased amount of jurisdictions that are monitoring their beaches and a relatively small number of lost days last year. However, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) paints a gloomier picture, stating that closings due to hazardous bacterial contamination are on the rise nationwide. The reasons the group cited for the jump in closings and advisories last year include what NRDC said is "the continuing failure of most municipalities to identify and clean up pollution sources."

A report released by NRDC on July 28 tallied nearly 20,000 closing and health advisory days across the country in 2004, the most since NRDC began tracking the problem 15 years ago.

The NRDC report, Testing the Waters, which covers ocean, bay and Great Lakes beaches, is available online at http://www.nrdc.org/water/oceans/ttw/titinx.asp. Another national organization, Surfrider Foundation, released its 2005 State of the Beach report July 28, which provides information on beach ecology, access, erosion and water quality, including material from NRDC's report and other sources. The report is available at http://www.surfrider.org/stateofthebeach.

The NRDC report find that states with the biggest jump in closing and advisory days compared with 2003 were Texas (1,074 percent), Washington (700 percent), Maryland (405 percent), Minnesota (333 percent), Michigan (174 percent), New York (117 percent) and Illinois (102 percent). Hawaii went from no closing or advisory days in 2003 to 1,169 in 2004; Maine went from none in 2003 to 56 in 2004. Nationally the number jumped 9 percent, from 18,224 days in 2003 to 19,950 days in 2004.

One reason, the group says, for the increase in closings and advisories is that improved monitoring spurred by previous reports is now uncovering the true extent of the pollution problem. Eighty-five percent of the closing and advisory days were prompted by dangerously high bacterial levels, indicating the presence of human or animal waste, NRDC stated. The group called on EPA to tighten controls on sewer overflows and stormwater discharges, ensure that states and localities monitor water quality and notify the public when it does not meet bacterial standards, and set standards to protect the public from waterborne pathogens.

According to data released by EPA on July 27, the number of beaches monitored has more than tripled -- 3,574 in 2004, compared with 1,021 in 1997, the first year EPA began collecting beach-monitoring program data. Of the beaches reported to EPA in 2004, 942, or 26 percent, had at least one advisory or closing during the 2004 season.

The agency stated U.S. beach closings and advisories show that four percent of beach days were lost in 2004 due to advisories or closures triggered by monitoring for bacteria. Most of the closures were relatively short in duration. More than 2,700 closings were two days or less, and only 59 closings lasted more than 30 days.

"The small percentage of beach days lost in 2004 is encouraging," said Benjamin H. Grumbles, EPA assistant administrator for water. "Finding the sources of pollution will help keep beach-goers safe at their favorite recreational spots. Federal dollars have gone a long way to help states identify problems."

The agency touted greater state participation in the monitoring program and improved measurement and monitoring made possible by grant money from EPA. For the past five years, EPA has provided nearly $42 million in grants to 35 coastal and Great Lakes states and territories. The grants seek to improve water monitoring and fund public-information programs that alert beach-goers about the health of their beaches.

The beach-monitoring program is required under the Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health (BEACH) Act. Coastal and Great Lakes states and territories must report to EPA on beach monitoring and notification data for their coastal recreation waters. On Nov. 8, 2004, EPA finalized more protective bacteria standards for E. coli and enterococci for coastal and Great Lakes recreational waters for those states that had not yet complied with the BEACH Act of 2000. Twenty-one states and territories were affected by this rule; the other 14 had standards in place that were as protective of human health as EPA's most current bacteria criteria.

EPA's data include only advisories issued as a result of local monitoring. They do not include advisories issued by state or local authorities as a result of local conditions or events. According to the agency, data trends are difficult to establish due to the new reporting requirements that began in 2003. The 2003 and 2004 data cannot easily be compared to data gathered from 1997 to 2002. From 1997-2002 beach monitoring data was collected and submitted to EPA on a voluntary basis and included coastal , Great Lakes, and some inland waters. Beginning with the 2003 season, states are required to submit data to EPA under the BEACH Act for beaches which are in coastal and Great Lakes waters.

Summary information for 2004 is available at: http://www.epa.gov/waterscience/beaches/2004fs.html.

Information about specific beaches is available at http://www.epa.gov/waterscience/beacon.

General information about EPA's beaches program is available at http://www.epa.gov/beaches.

This article originally appeared in the 07/01/2005 issue of Environmental Protection.

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