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Beach Closures Soar Following Better Testing and Monitoring

California closures and advisories rise to 5,780 with implementation of statewide beach monitoring

LOS ANGELES (August 8, 2001) - There were nearly twice as many beach closings and advisories last year than there were in 1999, compelling evidence that the nation's beaches have a major water pollution problem. California led the nation in closures and advisories with 5,780, compared to 3,547 in 1999.

That and other unpleasant news about the status of U.S. beaches was announced by NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), which today released its 11th annual report, "Testing the Waters: A Guide to Beach Water Quality at Vacation Beaches." Although some states experienced heavy rainfall, prompting more closings and advisories, most of the increase in closings and advisories followed increased monitoring, better testing standards for bacteria and other pathogens, and more complete reporting. There were 11,270 closings and advisories in 2000 compared to 6,160 beach closings and advisories in 1999.

This year's report also revealed another disturbing trend: the number of beaches reporting pollution problems of an unknown source jumped from 40 percent in 1999 to 56 percent in 2000.

California's dramatic rise in beach closures and advisories correlates directly with the implementation of AB411, a beach monitoring law that requires weekly testing of the state's beach water quality. Beginning in 1999, the state's Department of Health monitored all beaches with more than 50,000 annual visitors or with adjacent storm drains flowing throughout the summer, testing for bacteria and other pathogens. Closures or advisories were issued for beaches that failed to meet the state's standards for total coliform, fecal coliform or enterococcus, and the public was promptly notified.

NRDC says better monitoring has led to a more comprehensive picture of beach water quality and was bound to reveal a grimmer picture of pollution problems. Senior Attorney David Beckman, who directs the Coastal Water Quality Project in NRDC's Los Angeles office, noted that the increase in closures and advisories increases the urgency of identifying and cleaning up the sources of pollution. "The staggering number of closures and advisories confirms that when it comes to beach pollution, the more you look, the more you find," said Beckman. "It is imperative that we protect our state's recreational beaches with purpose and resolve equal to the magnitude of this very serious problem."

In 2000, Los Angeles County (including Long Beach) reported monitoring 17 beaches daily and at least 20 others a minimum of once per week. The city of Long Beach monitors an additional 26 beaches once per week. Ninety-two percent of the county's 1,266 closings/advisories were due to elevated bacteria of undetermined causes. The rest were due primarily to general rain advisories and known sewage discharges. General rain advisories of 72 hours each are issued in Los Angeles County following 0.05 to 0.1 inches of rain. These advisories affect all beaches.

Stormwater runoff continues to be the largest source of pollution in Santa Monica Bay, and a predominant cause of beach closures. Experts now consider Los Angeles to have one of the worst stormwater problems in the nation. In order to increase compliance and enforcement efforts, NRDC filed an administrative petition with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), contending that the State Water Resources Control Board's failure to adequately enforce stormwater requirements is unlawful under the federal Clean Water Act. EPA currently is considering the petition, which is one of the first in the nation to address a state's failure to enforce runoff rules. An immediate result of the petition promises to alleviate some of the problem: Gov. Gray Davis has provided first-time funding of $5 million to increase the board's staffing on stormwater issues across the state.

Another major recent development in the Los Angeles region concerns a new water board program to implement structural best management practices as part of all major new and redevelopment projects in the county. The program requirements are based on a settlement of a citizen enforcement action against the county of Los Angeles brought by NRDC and Santa Monica BayKeeper. The requirements, which would apply to all 88 cities in the Los Angeles region, mandate that the runoff from most storm events in the area receive some treatment or infiltration before being discharged to the region's storm drain system.

One local city that has taken a strong step forward in addressing Southern California's chronic beach pollution problem is the city of Santa Monica. The city recently unveiled a state-of-the-art stormwater treatment facility located near its famed pier and beaches. The facility will treat some 500,000 gallons of dry weather runoff water, as well as some wet weather runoff, that now goes directly into Santa Monica Bay through storm drains. Once treated, the runoff will be suitable for reuse for landscape irrigation and other purposes. "Innovative treatment options are an important part of the solution to the beach pollution problem," said NRDC attorney Heather Hoecherl. "Santa Monica deserves credit for taking the lead."

Orange County: In 2000, Orange County monitored a total of 27 beaches. Fourteen were monitored once a week, six were monitored twice a week, and seven were monitored three times a week. More than three quarters of the 881 closings and advisories (a 75 percent increase from 1999) were caused by elevated bacteria from unknown sources. General rain advisories of 72 hours each are issued in Orange County following 0.2 inches of rain. These advisories affect all beaches.

Around the state, San Diego County reported the highest number of closings/advisories followed by Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Orange, Ventura, San Mateo, Santa Cruz, Monterey, Sonoma, San Francisco, San Luis Obispo, and Mendocino counties. Contra Costa, Del Norte, and Marin counties, as well as the California State Park System and the National Park Service in Marin County, have not responded to EPA or NRDC surveys for the past two years.

States doing better job of monitoring

Over the 11 years since NRDC began publishing the annual report, coastal states have improved their monitoring, testing, and notification practices -- especially states that NRDC labeled "beach bums" for poor monitoring and notification practices. Eleven states have initiated or expanded monitoring programs: Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Maine, Massachusetts, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina and Texas. Additionally, California, Massachusetts and Florida have passed "beach bills" that mandate more regular beach monitoring and public notification.

Last year, several states increased the number of beaches they monitor. Alabama, Mississippi, California, Texas, Massachusetts, South Carolina and Florida all reported monitoring more sites. Meanwhile, Guam -- a U.S. territory that had not reported on its beach water quality since 1997 -- reported 1,691 closings and advisories

NRDC also found that the number of state agencies that have adopted at least one of the EPA's recommended health standards for swimmer safety increased from 51 in 1999 to 77 in 2000. But better standards and more frequent monitoring have revealed that beach pollution is more extensive than we realized. Elevated bacteria counts that exceeded swimmer safety standards accounted for 85 percent of the monitored beaches' closings and advisories. NRDC projects that high bacteria counts will prove to be a growing problem as more states adopt the stricter EPA testing standards.

A new national law encourages states to establish monitoring programs for water quality on their beaches and to promptly warn the public if harmful bacteria levels exceed acceptable health standards. States have to meet EPA standards under the law to receive federal funding for their beach monitoring and public notification programs. The law also requires all coastal states to adopt within three years health standards for beach water quality that are consistent with EPA's criteria under the Clean Water Act.

Beach bums and buddies

NRDC annually releases a list of beach bums -- those beaches (or entire states) lacking regular monitoring and/or proper public notification programs -- and beach buddies -- beaches or states that monitor regularly, use EPA's recommended health standards, and notify the public when those standards are exceeded.

Last year, NRDC strengthened its criteria for beach buddy status. Now beach buddies must monitor their beach water at least once a week, use EPA's recommended bacteria standard, always close or issue an advisory after initial sampling or after prompt resampling if the EPA standard is exceeded, and have few, if any, advisories or closings. Few beaches met this standard. This year's beach buddies include:

  • East Haven Town Beach, Connecticut
  • Hammonasset Beach State Park, Connecticut
  • Old Saybrook Town Beach, Connecticut
  • Waterford Town Beach, Connecticut
  • Brewster Beach, Massachusetts
  • Good Harbor Creek Beach, Massachusetts
  • Niles Beach in Gloucestor, Massachusetts
  • Pavillion Beach in Gloucester, Massachusetts

Beach bums for the year 2000 are:

  • Louisiana
  • Oregon

The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, non-profit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has more than 500,000 members nationwide, served from offices in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Related NRDC Pages
Summary of Findings
Guide to Finding Clean Beaches
Report: Testing the Waters 2001

Additional Downloadable Material for the Press
NRDC's Recommendations for Reducing Beachwater Pollution in Microsoft Word format, 84k


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