Water Quality at U.S. Vacation Beaches Slightly Improved

WASHINGTON, DC, July 29, 2008 (ENS) – There were fewer closings and health advisories due to polluted water at American beaches last year than in 2006, the worst year for beach water pollution, finds the annual report on beach water quality issued today by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

But there is little room for celebration – the report shows 2007 was the second-worst year for beaches since NRDC began tracking these events 18 years ago.

“Some families can’t enjoy their local beaches because they are polluted and kids are getting sick – largely because of human and animal waste in the water,” said Nancy Stoner, director of NRDC’s clean water project. She says the report confirms that serious water pollution at many U.S. beaches puts swimmers at risk.

Using data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the report, “Testing the Waters: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches,” shows the number of closing and advisory days at ocean, bay and Great Lakes beaches was more than 20,000 for the third consecutive year.

Boys swimming in clean water at
Ala Moana Beach Park, Oahu
(Photo by Brandon Flores)

For the first time this year, NRDC is rating more than 100 popular beaches with a five-star rating guide [oceans.nrdc.org] based on the cleanliness of the water as well asmonitoring and public notification practices.

Some of the cleanest beaches in the nation are on the California coast. Most sections of Laguna, Huntington Beach and Bolsa Chica earned the five-star ratings from NRDC.

Hawaiian beaches on Oahu, Kauai and Maui also earned five stars, including Magic Island Beach at Ala Moana Beach Park offshore of downtown Honolulu.

On the east coast, one Maryland beach earned a five-star rating – Ocean City at Beach 6 – and in New Hampshire, Hampton Beach in Rockingham County was awarded five stars.

In Minnesota, three Duluth beaches on Lake Superior received five-star ratings, including the popular Park Point Beach House.

Five star ratings aside, the NRDC report is filled with warnings about polluted beach water. Nationally, seven percent of beachwater samples violated health standards, showing no improvement from 2006.

In the Great Lakes, 15 percent of beachwater samples violated those standards – the highest level of contamination of any coastal region in the continental United States.

The number of closing and advisory days due to sewage spills and overflows more than tripled to 4,097 from 2006 to 2007.

But still, the greatest source of pollution continues to be contamination from stormwater, which caused more than 10,000 closing and advisory days – more than half of the totoal.

Whenever it rains, stormwater carries pollution from urban and suburban streets to the beach without any treatment. Unknown sources of pollution, also called nonpoint sources, caused more than 8,000 closing and advisory days in 2007.

The biggest increase in closing and advisory days, 38 percent, was in the Gulf Coast region, partly because beaches in Louisiana and Mississippi were reopened and monitored for the first full beach season there since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck in 2005.

Orchard Beach, Bronx, New York
(Photo by Dan DeLuca)

Beaches along the New York and New Jersey coast had the second-highest increase in closing and advisory days, 33 percent.

Great Lakes beaches and New York and New Jersey Atlantic beaches both saw increases in bacterial contamination of the waters, bringing an increase in closings and advisories, indicating that there are sources of human or animal wastes in the waters that are not being adequately addressed.

The biggest drop in closing and advisory days was a 36 percent reduction in Hawaii, which had an abnormal rainfall year in 2006.

Closing and advisory days were down in the rest of the country by four percent between 2006 and 2007.

The report blames aging and poorly-designed sewage and stormwater systems for much of the beach water pollution.

Sprawling development in coastal areas is eliminating wetlands and other natural buffers such as dunes and beach grass that would have helped filter out pollution before it reaches the beach, the report points out.

Not only are the beaches polluted, the way they are tested is also failing the American public, according to NRDC.

Beach water quality standards are more than 20 years old and rely on outdated science and monitoring methods that leave beachgoers vulnerable to a range of waterborne illnesses including gastroenteritis, dysentery, hepatitis, and respiratory ailments. For senior citizens, small children, and people with weak immune systems, the results can be fatal.

“What this report means for families heading to the beach is they need to be careful and do a little homework,” said Stoner. “Call your local public health authority and ask them if the beachwater is safe for swimming. If there is any doubt, or if the water smells bad or looks dirty, stay out of it.”

Stoner says Beach Protection Act bills now pending in Congress would provide money for beachwater sampling and require use of faster testing methods so people get timely information about whether it is safe to swim.

To read the report, “Testing the Waters: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches,” click here [www.nrdc.org].

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