Pollution Causes Record Number of ‘No Swimming’ Days at Beaches Nationwide; LA County Closures Are Sky High Despite Drought, Says New NRDC Report
LOS ANGELES (August 7, 2007) – Beach closings and warnings due to bacterial contamination hit a near-record high in Los Angeles County last year despite drought conditions that reduced urban runoff, the main cause of polluted beach water. Across the country, beaches were unsafe for swimming on a record number of days, according to the 17th annual beach water quality report released today by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
Using data just collected from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and a peer-reviewed methodology, “Testing the Waters: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches,” tallied more than 25,000 closing and health advisory days at ocean, bay and Great Lakes beaches in 2006. The number of no-swim days caused by overflowing sewage systems doubled from the year before. The full report is here.
NRDC’s report tallied 2,072 closing and health advisory days in 2006 for LA County beaches, the second highest since statewide testing standards began seven years ago. Closings mean water is dirty enough to cause gastroenteritis, dysentery, hepatitis, respiratory ailments and other serious health problems. Across California, the report documented 4,644 closing and health advisory days in 2006. Studies show that water-borne diseases cost Californians tens of millions of dollars each year in health care and lost work.
“Families shouldn’t be worried about keeping the kids out of the water so they don’t get sick,” said David Beckman, a senior attorney with NRDC and the director of its California Coastal Water Quality Program. “But too often, unfortunately, that’s the case.”
Aging and poorly designed sewage and storm water systems hold much of the blame for beach water pollution. At the same time, unmitigated urban sprawl continues to overwhelm wetlands and other natural barriers, such as dunes and beach grass, which help filter hazardous pollutants. Rainstorms often cause large amounts of pollution to flow to the beach, and sewers to overflow.
“We can fix leaky pipes; we can require costal developers to maintain vegetation to absorb rain. The solutions are out there,” said Nancy Stoner, director of NRDC’s Clean Water Project.
One example of smarter building is the main Santa Monica Public Library, which received the LEED Gold rating from the U.S. Green Building Council when it opened early last year. It has a water management system that captures, filters and holds 200,000 gallons of rainwater in a cistern, keeping it from overwhelming the city storm water system. The stored water is used to irrigate the library’s garden.
California Beach Bums and Beach Buddies
This year, NRDC named Avalon Beach-north of Green Pleasure Pier, on Santa Catalina Island (Los Angeles County) and Venice State Beach (San Mateo County) as Beach Bums because they failed to meet national health standards more than half of the time, putting beachgoers at risk. NRDC named Laguna Beach at the City of Laguna Beach a Beach Buddy because it took steps to clean up pollution.
For the third consecutive year, “Testing the Waters” looked at the percent of monitoring samples that exceeded California’s daily maximum bacterial standards for enterococcus, total coliform, and fecal coliform. Besides the two Bums above, the other beaches with the highest percent exceedances of state standards were:
- Los Angeles County: Long Beach area B-69, Long Beach area B-70, Colorado Lagoon-South, Colorado Lagoon-Center, Colorado Lagoon-North, Santa Monica State Beach at Santa Monica Pier, and Long Beach-Alamitos Bay Beach at 2nd St. Bridge & Bay Shore Ave.
- San Mateo County: Marina Lagoon
- Santa Barbara County: East Beach-Mission Beach
Mendocino County had the highest percent of monitored beaches with no exceedances (88 percent), followed by Sonoma (71 percent), Monterey (50 percent), San Diego (32 percent), Marin (30 percent), Ventura (27 percent), Santa Cruz (24 percent), San Mateo (15 percent), Orange (6 percent), Santa Barbara (5 percent), and Los Angeles (1 percent).
Not only are many beaches polluted, but the way they are tested is also failing the American public, according to NRDC public health and water experts. The current beach water quality standards are 20 years old and rely on obsolete monitoring methods and outdated science that leave beachgoers vulnerable to a range of waterborne illnesses.
This led NRDC to file a lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) a year ago, when the previous Testing the Waters report was released. In 2000, Congress passed the Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act (BEACH Act), which required EPA to revise the then current health standards by October 2005. The agency missed the deadline and said it would not comply until 2011. NRDC’s lawsuit seeks to force EPA to adopt protective standards on a tighter schedule. The court recently ruled that EPA violated the BEACH Act, and it is setting a schedule for EPA to come into compliance.
National Beach Data
Nationwide, sewage spills and overflows caused at least 1,301 beach closing and advisory days in 2006, an increase of 402 days from 2005. Elevated bacteria levels from miscellaneous sources, such as boat discharges or wildlife, accounted for at least 410 closing and advisory days, an increase of 77 days from 2005. In addition, more than 14,000 closing and advisory days were due to unknown sources of pollution.
Besides compiling data on 3,500 U.S. beaches, the report this year takes an especially close look at the nation’s highest risk beaches – those that are either very popular, very close to pollution sources, or both. Of those high-risk beaches, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Rhode Island and Minnesota ranked the worst for failing to meet national health standards. The problem was compounded by record rainfall, which added to the strain on already overloaded infrastructure.
“Beachgoers should use this report to inform themselves about the quality of water at local beaches,” said Michelle Mehta, an attorney with NRDC’s California Coastal Water Quality Program. “Choose your beach wisely. And if there is any doubt, or if the water smells bad or looks dirty, stay out of it.”
National Beach Bums, Beach Buddies and a Beach Hero
Based on the report’s findings, NRDC today announced the best and worst beaches for protecting beachgoers from contaminated water. This year there are 13 Beach Buddies, six Beach Bums and, for the first time, a Beach Hero.
Beach Buddies: Monitored beach water quality regularly, violated national public health standards less than 10 percent of the time, and took significant steps to reduce pollution:
- California: Laguna Beach
- North Carolina: Kure Beach and Kill Devil Hills beach
- Wisconsin: Sister Bay Beach and North Beach
- Michigan: Grand Haven City Beach and Grand Haven State Park beaches
- Maine: Libby Cove, Mother’s, Middle, Cape Neddick, Short Sands and York Harbor beaches
Beach Bums: Violated public health standards 51 percent or more of the time samples were taken:
- California: Avalon Beach-north of GP Pier (53 percent) and Venice State Beach (57 percent)
- Maryland: Hacks Point (60 percent) and Bay Country Campground and Beach (56 percent)
- New Jersey: Beachwood Beach West (60 percent)
- Illinois: Jackson Park Beach (54 percent)
Beach Hero: For the first time this year, NRDC is recognizing an individual as a Beach Buddy. Dr. Carl Berg of Hawaii, a marine ecologist and long-time water quality champion, was nominated as a Beach Buddy by the staff of the Hawaii Department of Health for his work with the Hanalei Heritage River organization and the Hanalei Watershed Hui. Dr. Berg worked to set up monitoring programs for the beaches, rivers and streams of Hanalei Bay and to protect them by replacing cesspools on beach parks and on private land along the river, working with farmers to reduce sediment discharge, and developing best practices to protect the upper watershed.
NRDC is also offering beachgoers an opportunity to discuss their personal Beach Bums and Beach Buddies. To post a comment, visit NRDC's new Your Oceans
website, where you also will find fun summer tips for having a safe and healthy time at the beach this summer season.
The 2007 Beach Protection Act
In May, the Beach Protection Act of 2007 (H.R. 2537/S. 1506) was introduced in the U.S. Congress, reauthorizing the Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act (BEACH Act) of 2000. If passed, the Act will mandate the use of rapid testing methods to detect beach water contamination in two hours or less so that beachgoers can be notified of public health risks promptly. The Act will also increase the amount of grant money available to states from $30 million to $60 million annually through 2012, and expand the uses of grant funds to include source tracking and pollution prevention.