How Polluted is Your Beach? A New Report Knows


alan_cleaver 2000
NRDC Issues 2009 "Testing the Waters" Report
A day at the beach sounds good -- as long as the waves aren't contaminated by human or animal waste.

At the risk of raining on your beach party, and in the hopes of eventually improving it, the Natural Resources Defense Council issued its latest report on water quality at U.S. beaches. The good news: a 10 percent decrease in closing or advisory days last year compared to 2007. The bad: pollution remains serious, leading to 20,341 days on which ocean, bay and Great Lakes beaches were closed or were the subject of health advisories. How's your beach? See the list below!How 200 Beaches Stack Up
Before going any further, check out how many stars your nearest beach received from the NRDC at its map of 200 popular U.S. beaches, with ratings for cleanliness and how well they are monitored, or at its list of 200 beaches and their ratings.

Environmental Protection Agency's Beach Watch is also full of useful information, including a database of testing and beach closures and advisories. The agency's Beachgoer's Guide also offers tips about how you can help to improve water quality at the beach.

Although the EPA's standards determine when a beach should be closed due to pollution, measurements are not often read until the next day, meaning that beachgoers are swimming unawares. What's more, measurements cannot always determine the source of the pollution.

How Bad Was 2008 -- And Why
Beachwater pollution has many points of origin. In addition to sewage runoff and littering, rain tends to play a large role in flushing pollutants like factory exhaust and dirty storms into the oceans.

Last year saw a relative dry spell in California, Hawaii and from Delaware to the southeastern states and the Gulf of Mexico. Wetter than usual conditions increased closings and advisories in the Great Lakes, New England and the New York-New Jersey region.

In its full report, the NRDC says that monitoring has increased, helping to highlight the extensive problem of beachwater pollution. The council identified 124 beaches in 20 states that violated public health standards more than 25 percent of the time in 2008, according to state and local monitoring data.

According to the NRDC's Switchboard blog,

Seven percent of beachwater samples violated health standards nationwide, indicating fecal contamination and showing no improvement from the last two years. From 2005-2008, the Great Lakes have consistently tested the dirtiest, while the Southeast and Delmarva Peninsula proved relatively cleaner than other regions. The primary pollution sources, stormwater runoff after heavy rains (responsible for 38 percent of closing & advisory days) and sewage pollution (responsible for 8 percent) continue to be serious problems that haven't been addressed.

The Best and Worst Beaches
Delaware, New Hampshire and Virginia tend to boast pristine, nearly pollution-free shores. Virginia on the other hand is home to Fairview Beach in King George County, a beach that consistently fails more than 25 percent of its water quality tests.

Ocean City, Maryland, is one of the country's perennially clean beaches, due to its clean water and strict water quality monitoring. In nearby Delaware, Dewey and Bethany beaches were also relatively clean.

On the West Coast, California's Newport Beach and Laguna Beach are two five-star beaches; Doheny Beach and Avalon Beach, which both failed more than 25 percent of their water quality tests in 2008, are not.

The Great Lakes region is not an ideal beach destination. From 2005 to 2008, the Great Lakes consistently tested the dirtiest, and in 2008, 13 percent of beach water samples violated public health standards.

Better Laws Needed
But more and better monitoring is crucial, says NRDC. It was the group's initial report in 1991 that helped spur lawmakers to enact the federal BEACH Act of 2000, which provided grants to state and local governments to set up beachwater monitoring programs.

A new bill to reauthorize that law, the Clean Coastal Environment and Public Health Act, would increase federal funding for beachwater managers and allow those funds to be used for detecting and cleaning up sources of beachwater pollution, as well as better notify the public. The bill awaits action in Congress.

Also looming is the Waxman-Markey American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES) to help mitigate climate change, a factor that the NRDC says also hurts beachwater quality.

That's because more frequent and intense rainstorms and temperature increases lead to increased stormwater runoff, combined sewer overflows and pathogens in nearby waterways. Such pathogens include microbes that cause stomach flu, diarrhea, skin rashes and neurological and blood infections.

The Greater Health Threat
In addition, says the report, beachwater pollution can give swimmers the stomach flu, skin rashes, pinkeye, ear, nose and throat problems, dysentery, hepatitis, respiratory ailments, neurological disorders and other serious health problems. Senior citizens, small children, and people with weak immune systems are especially vulnerable.

For an idea of some of the diseased trash that might be lurking under the waves, just take a look at the "goodies" picked up by the Surfrider Foundation last year.

How to Solve This
Aside from the aforementioned legislation, local governments can prevent pollution from ruining our beach time by continuing to focus on treatment facilities and low impact development techniques that better manage rainwater so that it soaks into the ground, rather than running off into waterways.

Think well-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.

People can also help prevent beach pollution by picking up pet waste, maintaining septic systems, putting plastic pants on babies, and properly disposing of household toxics, used motor oil and boating wastes.

And no one ruins a fun beach party like a litterer.

More on Beach Pollution at Treehugger
Great Ideas: Beach Cleanup
NRDC Offers Live Online Chat Discussing Beach Safety Tips
5 Super Cheap, Green Beach Resorts
Pollution to Put an End to Endless Summer Days?
California Commits to Significantly Reducing Storm Water Pollution
Top 5 Sources of Water Pollution

How Polluted is Your Beach? A New Report Knows
At the risk of raining on your beach party, and in the hopes of eventually improving it,

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