Put Down Your Beach Towel: 10 States Where You Should Think Twice Before Jumping in the Water

Personal Health

It's that time of year again -- folks are donning swimsuits, grabbing beach chairs, and heading for the water to cool down. It's also the time of year when the Natural Resources Defense Council releases its annual report, "Testing the Waters," detailing the cleanliness of the water we're diving into.

In 2010, NRDC found that the number of beach closings and advisories reached 24,091 -- the second highest in the 21 years the organization has been compiling its report. Mostly the report focuses on tracking bacteria in the water, which accounted for nearly 75 percent of closings and advisories in the last year. The culprit? "Across the country, aging and poorly designed sewage treatment systems and contaminated stormwater are often to blame for beachwater pollution," the report states.

That's bad news for swimmers and those who make a living from the beach crowd. Contaminated waters from sewage overflows and leaks can cause a variety of health problems, from stomach flus and skin rashes to meningitis, hepatitis and respiratory infections. The report states that in L.A. and Orange counties fecal contamination caused between 627,800 and 1,479,200 gastrointestinal illnesses in a year. And it's likely many, many more cases went unreported. Each year around 3.5 million people get sick because of sewage overflows and 10 trillion gallons of untreated stormwater are released into our waterways.

If those numbers are making you a little queasy, that's nothing compared to how business owners may feel. NRDC reports that 85 percent of all the tourism revenue in the country comes from coastal states. In 2007, counties along the coasts contributed $5.6 trillion to our GDP and recorded 47 million jobs.

As Gulf states residents know, beach closings and advisories are more than just health risks -- they can be economically destructive as well. The NRDC report also looked at the impact of our largest oil spill. From the start of the Deepwater Horizon spill until mid-June of this year, there were 9,474 days of notices, advisories and closures at Gulf beaches.

Before we look at just why are beaches are so contaminated and what we can do about it, let's check out the 10 states that are the worst offenders.

10. Alabama

The bad news starts off down south. Alabama reports having 97 coastal beaches. Of those beaches 8 percent were monitored for water quality more than once a week, 12 percent were monitored once a week, 5 percent every two weeks, and sadly 74 percent were not monitored at all. So the majority of beachgoers in Alabama may not have a very good idea of how clean the water actually is. Water samples that were collected exceeded the national standards 10 percent of the time.

Oh, and the state doesn't actually order beaches to be closed if they do exceed the standards, it just issues an advisory -- so heads-up to swimmers.

9. California

The state has a whole lot of beaches -- 500 miles and over 400 beaches on the ocean and San Francisco Bay. California does a decent job of monitoring, with 62 percent of beaches checked once a week and less than 1 percent not monitored at all. Although, ideally it would be great to know daily how clean the water is that you're swimming or surfing in since California exceeds national standards 10 percent of the time.

Unfortunately California is also on the short-list of repeat offender states that NRDC has tracked over the last six years. The state had six beaches on this list where sampling exceeded national standards over 25 percent of the time and over the course of the last several years.

8. Maine

On the opposite side of the country, things aren't looking too hot for Maine, which violated water standards 11 percent of the time. The states has 30 miles of beaches and the vast majority (89 percent) are monitored once a week.

7. Connecticut

Connecticut doesn't have hundreds of miles of beaches -- just a meager 18 miles on the Long Island Sound -- but the state still managed to exceed standards 10 percent of the time. Most of the monitoring is done weekly and unfortunately, 2010 recorded a jump of 32 percent from the previous year in advisories and closures.

6. Wisconsin

The Great Lakes states as a region had the most advisories and closures, and Wisconsin added to that tally by exceeding water standards 11 percent of the time, with 193 beaches along 55 miles of Lake Superior and Lake Michigan. Most of the beaches were monitored once a week or more, although 38 percent weren't monitored at all.

The report states, "While we do not know all the sources of contamination at Great Lakes beaches, we do know that aging and failing infrastructure throughout the region is probably the most prevalent factor."

5. Illinois

In nearby Illinois, things are just a bit worse. At 52 beaches along Lake Michigan, the state exceeded water standards 14 percent of the time. Although 28 percent of the beaches were being monitored daily and 54 percent once a week. According to the report, the Great Lakes region has a problem with big storms overwhelming treatment plants. Many systems suffer from combined sewer overflows (CSOs), which means the sewer systems take both stormwater and sanitary waste into the same system and treat both before discharging. However, when storm surges overwhelm the system, it means that raw sewage can be released before it’s treated.

The report states, "In Chicago, NRDC research has shown this to occur with as little as 1.5 inches of rain. This limitation is not uncommon for the region--and that is bad for the Great Lakes, where much of that pollution can end up. A 2006 study estimated that 20 cities dump almost 25 billion gallons of untreated sewage into the Great Lakes each year through CSOs; this points to one obvious place to focus resources in order to reduce a significant pollution source impacting beach and water quality."

4. Michigan

Continuing with the woes of other Great Lakes states, Michigan has 632 coastal beaches, but sadly 400 of those are not being monitored. The ones that are exceeded water standards 15 percent of the time. The vast majority of the closures, 81 percent, were due to high levels of bacteria, although the state does preemptively issue closings and advisories when heavy rainfall occurs in high-risk areas or for other reasons.

3. Indiana

Indiana is not quite the worst of the region's states, but it's close. Of its 30 beaches along Lake Michigan, there were water quality issues 16 percent of the time. And poor Gary may get the brunt of the blame. NRDC reports that the city, "has discharged 6.8 billion gallons of raw and partially treated sewage into waterways flowing directly into Lake Michigan in the past three years, according to press accounts." That would seem to explain why 89 percent of the closings and advisories were from high levels of bacteria.

The only good news here may be that the state monitors all of its beaches once a week or more frequently.

2. Ohio

Nearly the bottom of the barrel, Ohio exceeded water quality 21 percent of the time at its meager 7.3 miles of shoreline along Lake Erie. While the state monitors all its beaches, Lake Erie has some tough issues to cope with. The report states, "Increased runoff of dissolved phosphorus from farm fields and cities, continued dumping of pollution and hot water from wastewater treatment and power plants, and the invasion of quagga mussels and zebra mussels that concentrate nutrients in nearshore areas and at the lake bottom have conspired to cause thick carpets of toxic blue-green algae to cover portions of Lake Erie every summer."

Not exactly a place that sounds ideal for swimming.

1. Louisiana

It's hard to imagine that a state sacked by hurricanes and then the oil disaster could end up anyplace but at the bottom of this list. Louisiana exceeded water quality standards a dismal 37 percent of the time. In addition to bacteria-related issues from the usual sewage sources, the state had to order 2,232 closing days since the spill and still has some beaches closed as oil continues to wash ashore.

Much of the coastline is vital wetlands, which can help treat polluted water. Although if more of these wetlands are lost due to the spill or development, it will likely mean more bad news for the state's water quality.

What's to Blame and What Can We Do?

After looking at the 10 worst offenders, it's important to note that water pollution is most definitely a national issue. Other states are hit hard by different sources of pollution -- not just bacteria from humans and animals. American Rivers recently released its report of the 10 most endangered rivers in America. Many of those rivers are threatened by industrial pollutants, like harmful chemicals from mining, as well as oil and gas fracking. And some rivers, like the St. Croix, are threatened by development.

The sources of pollution identified by NRDC in "Testing the Waters" though were boiled down to four culprits:

1. Stormwater runoff;

2. Sewage overflows and inadequately treated sewage;

3. Agricultural runoff, and

4. Other sources, such as beachgoers, wildlife, septic systems, and boating waste.

The NRDC found that 52 percent of the closings and advisories came from unknown sources of pollution; 36 percent from runoff and stormwater; 19 percent from other sources of pollution, such as waste discharged from boats; and 8 percent to overflows and spills of sewers and septic systems. As climate change increases extreme weather, we will likely see more water pollution problems from heavy rains and quick snowmelts, unless we start to clean up (and green up) our act.

Here's what NRDC recommends:

Often, the best way of avoiding runoff-related pollution is to reduce the volume of stormwater flowing to the storm drains that carry it to nearby water bodies or, in some cases, to sewage treatment plants. Green infrastructure, which restores or mimics natural conditions, involves techniques that allow rainwater to infiltrate into the soil, reducing the volume of runoff. Green infrastructure includes the use of porous pavement, green roofs, parks, roadside plantings, and rain barrels, to stop rain where it falls, either storing it or letting it filter into the ground naturally. This keeps stormwater runoff from overloading sewage systems and triggering overflows or from carrying pollutants into natural bodies of water.

Not only do these smarter water practices on land not only prevent pollution at the beach--but they also beautify neighborhoods, cool and cleanse the air, reduce asthma and heat-related illnesses, save on heating and cooling energy costs, boost economies, and support millions of American jobs at the same time. Many cities and states have embraced green infrastructure practices.

Some of these projects are already in the works, even in the much-maligned Great Lakes area, and many are detailed in "Testing the Waters." But, in order to make these changes, and just to maintain the systems we do have properly to avoid spill and leaks, our water and wastewater systems need to be adequately funded.

Unfortunately, over the last 30 years we've been in a federal funding free fall and the Obama administration hasn't acted to fix the slide. As a result, many communities are struggling to be able to maintain the systems they have and pay for the necessary upgrades to keep them running safely.

NRDC reports:

There is a need to invest nearly $300 billion over the next 20 years for water and wastewater infrastructure in the United States, of which $63.6 billion is needed for CSO [combine sewer overflow] correction, according to the EPA. In the long term, Congress should assist state and local communities in reaching these levels by substantially increasing the federal resources available to meet clean water needs through the creation of a trust fund or other dedicated source of clean water funding. But Congress also needs to act today, by increasing annual funding to the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF), which provides critical assistance for projects that repair and rebuild failing water and wastewater infrastructure, and which in recent years has also specifically focused funding on green infrastructure projects.

Unfortunately, the CWSRF has been a target for cuts during recent budget debates--funding for the revolving fund was cut dramatically for the current fiscal year, and President Obama has suggested cutting nearly a billion dollars from the CWSRF and its companion program, the Safe Drinking Water SRF. The EPA needs to plug the loopholes that allow industrial livestock operations to continue to discharge animal wastes into waterways. The EPA estimates that confined livestock produce about three times as much waste as people do nationwide; however, these operations lack treatment facilities for livestock waste even remotely comparable to those that treat human sewage. Moreover, many large feedlot operations historically avoided getting Clean Water Act permits, something made easier by lax federal regulation. This state of affairs was recently made worse by a court decision in which the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled that the federal Clean Water Act does not require these large industrial livestock facilities to obtain pollution control permits unless and until they discharge to protected waters, even when such facilities are designed and operated in a way that will predictably lead to a pollution release.

If you're interested in swimming this summer, there's a host of pertinent information in "Testing the Waters." You can find out about the specific area you live in or plan to visit, how your state tests for water quality and how quickly it is able to notify swimmers once a problem has been discovered. (Unfortunately most states have a 23-hour lag in testing and notification, so you may not find out until the day after that there were health risks where you were swimming.)

If you're interested in knowing more about funding our water and wastewater infrastructure, Food and Water Watch has a host of information from various reports it's done over the last several years about how bad things are and how we can fix this problem.

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