Dude, Where's My Beach?
The number of closings and advisories at U.S. oceans and Great Lakes beaches last year rose 51 percent from 2002, according to an annual survey released Thursday by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
The study, based on federal and state data, finds 2003 was the worst year for beach closings and advisories since the environmental organization began monitoring beach water pollution 14 years ago.
High bacteria levels – indicating the presence of human or animal waste – prompted 88 percent of the closing and advisory days in 2003.
"Millions of Americans go to the beach every summer to enjoy the sun, the sand, and the surf," said Nancy Stoner, director of NRDC's Clean Water Project. "Too often they have to stay out of the water or risk getting sick."
Last year there were more than 18,000 days of beach closings and advisories – an increase of 6,206 days.
Better monitoring of beach water quality accounts for some of the increase in closings and advisories, according to NRDC, but so does the continued failure of most municipalities to identify and control sources of beach water pollution.
The report finds that local authorities did not know the sources of pollution causing or contributing to 68 percent of the closing and advisory days last year. This is the highest rate of "unknown" sources since NRDC first issued its annual beach report in 1991.
Florida, which saw its closing and advisory days increased by 128 percent, accounted for more than a third of the overall increase. The NRDC accounts this to the state's increased monitoring and its adoption of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) health standards.
Mississippi's closing and advisory days increased 337 percent, the largest percentage jump between 2002 and 2003.
The report highlights four communities that NRDC believes do not regularly monitor beach water or notify the public if health standards are exceeded.
The list of NRDC's "Beach Bums" includes: Kennebunkport, Maine; Bar Harbor, Maine; St. Lawrence County, New York; and Frenchman's Bar in Vancouver, Washington.
"We know that the high bacteria levels that cause most closings and advisories come from two sources – inadequately treated sewage and contaminated stormwater," Stoner said. "We have a major water system breakdown across the country, and local, state and federal authorities need to wake up and fix it."
NRDC is calling for authorities to focus on preventing raw sewage discharges, reducing contaminated stormwater runoff, and setting strong public health standards for bacteria, viruses, parasites and other pollutants.
Health and water quality standards currently vary among states and coastal territories, and municipalities are struggling to upgrade the nation's aging sewage infrastructure. The average age of collection system components is about 33 years, but some pipes still in use are almost 200 years old.
The problem carries a hefty price tag – federal estimates suggest there is a national funding gap as high as $1 trillion for water infrastructure.
NRDC criticizes the Bush administration for a proposed $500 million cut in federal grants for sewage treatment plant upgrades and for policies to change the regulation of sewage treatment discharges. The Bush proposal would give plants greater flexibility to discharge wastewater that has not been sent through secondary treatment units.
EPA officials and industry representatives note that this blended waste must still meet discharge standards, but environmentalists say those standards do not cover viruses or parasites and believe the plan violates the Clean Water Act.
"Inadequately treated sewage can cause vomiting and diarrhea for healthy people, but can be life threatening for young children and the elderly," said Stoner. "The EPA's policy is irresponsible."
NRDC praised four municipalities for their efforts not just to monitor water quality and inform the public, but also for taking steps to address sources of beach pollution by improving sewage or storm water treatment, limiting coastal development, or preserving coastal wetlands.
The report applauded the efforts of: Willard Beach, South Portland, Maine; Town Beach, Warren, Rhode Island; Ocean City, Maryland; and Newport Beach, California.
Download the full beach report.