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Beach Closures and Advisories Up Again Nationwide and in California
NRDC's 'Beach Buddy' Awards Now Go to Local Efforts to Reduce Pollution: Los Angeles and San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Boards Awarded for New Storm Water Permits
LOS ANGELES (July 24, 2002) -- It's become a familiar refrain every summer: beach closures and advisories are up … again. NRDC's (Natural Resources Defense Council) 12th annual beach report released today found that there were 19 percent more closures and advisories nationwide in 2001 than in the previous year.
According to "Testing the Waters: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches," there were at least 13,410 closures and advisories at ocean and freshwater beaches in 2001 compared to at least 11,270 in 2000. Pollution from sewage spills and urban runoff contaminates many beaches with disease-causing bacteria and other pathogens. In fact, high bacteria levels, indicating the presence of human or animal waste, prompted 87 percent of the closures and advisories in 2001.
California's beaches fared little better: closures and advisories in the Golden State rose 14 percent last year. This marks the fifth consecutive annual increase in the number of closures and advisories statewide. More rainfall in 2001 was a contributing factor, but California also began monitoring 14 new beaches, and that led to 124 additional closures and advisories.
California's beaches may look beautiful, but the water can be hazardous to human health due to the number of beaches that have reported high levels of bacteria and pathogens. Eighty-six percent of California's beach closures and advisories last year were linked to elevated bacteria levels. And in a disturbing upward trend, California county officials could not account for the source of pollution in more than 56 percent of the closures and advisories. In Los Angeles County alone, elevated bacteria levels triggered 93 percent of the closures and advisories in 2001, all of which officials attributed to an "unknown source."
Senior attorney David Beckman, who directs NRDC's Coastal Water Quality Project in Los Angeles, says that "unknown source" is usually code for urban runoff: a slurry of trash, toxics and bacteria-laden water that gets into the storm drains and washes into the ocean and other waterways. Urban runoff is a growing problem across the nation and a primary cause of beach closures. Mr. Beckman warns that the urban runoff problem is epidemic and beach closures and advisories won't significantly decrease without dedicated efforts at the local, state and federal levels.
"We need to face reality: Southern California is heavily urbanized, and this is a pavement-equals-pollution problem," said Beckman. "Until we reduce urban runoff, we're just not going to solve the pollution problem at our beaches."
Urban runoff is the largest source of pollution in Southern California, fouling Santa Monica Bay and hundreds of miles of coastline. Urban runoff pollution has become so serious that earlier this year, the Los Angeles and San Diego regional water quality control boards issued notably stronger Clean Water Act permits to cities in each region.
Two California water agencies named Beach Buddies
This year, NRDC strengthened its criteria for the annual Beach Buddy award. To qualify, the officials must monitor the beaches regularly, close beaches or notify the public when standards are exceeded, and use EPA's health standards. For the first time, NRDC is recognizing authorities that also have taken significant steps to reduce beach pollution over the previous year. The Los Angeles and San Diego regional water quality control boards made the list for passing innovative and comprehensive storm water permits. NRDC says these permits are progressive measures that step up industrial inspections, enhance public education and combine cost-effective and innovative measures to help reduce urban runoff.
But NRDC says that the permits may now be at risk if rogue politicians in some cities get their way. Appeals of the Los Angeles County storm water permit are pending before the State Water Board, where a decision on the permit's terms is expected as early as this summer. Meanwhile, the Building Industry Association has filed suit to stop the San Diego permit, and that lawsuit is pending in state court.
"These regional water quality boards deserve credit for taking the pollution problem and their responsibilities seriously," Beckman noted. "If these permits are implemented, they will start the region along the path to clean water, much like effective air regulations have moved the region toward noticeably cleaner air during the 1980s and 1990s."
The regional water boards in California are two of only five Beach Buddy awards given this year. The others are: Branford, Connecticut; Key West, Florida; and Salem, Massachusetts.
NRDC also is releasing its list of Beach Bums -- those communities, or in some cases, entire states -- that do not monitor beach water for swimmer safety, do not regularly notify the public if health standards are exceeded, do not use EPA's recommended health standards, and have known pollution sources affecting their beaches. In addition to these 70 communities, NRDC also named two states, Oregon and Louisiana, Beach Bums because neither has a regular monitoring or public-notification program. Click here for more information.
State summary of closures and advisories
In 2001, Los Angeles County (including Long Beach) reported monitoring 17 beaches daily, and it monitored at least 16 others a minimum of once per week. The City of Long Beach monitored an additional 22 beaches once per week. Los Angeles County had 1,046 closures and advisories in 2001.
Orange County monitored a total of 25 beaches at least once per week. The County reported 1,592 closures and advisories in 2001, the highest number reported in California. That total also is up over the previous year's report of 881 closures and advisories. Eighty-four percent of Orange County's closures and advisories were issued because monitoring revealed bacteria levels exceeding standards. Once again, officials could not account for the source of pollution in the majority of those cases.
Further south, San Diego County reported 931 closures and advisories, down from 1,349 in 2000, but this reflects changes in the San Diego Department of Environmental Health's monitoring frequency and sampling sites. Samples that used to be taken close to streams entering the beach now are taken 25 yards downcoast where bacterial concentrations may be diluted. Monitoring revealed elevated bacteria levels in 75 percent of the closures and advisories; over half were of unknown origin.
Around the state, other counties reported increases in closures and advisories. Ventura County had 1,540 closures and advisories in 2001, up from 856 in 2000. Monterey climbed to 210 after reporting only 69 in 2000. San Francisco doubled its closures and advisories; 68 in 2001 compared to 31 in 2000. San Luis Obispo reported 69 closures and advisories in 2001, up from 17 in 2000. Alameda, Contra Costa, Del Norte, Humboldt and Marin counties, as well as the California State Parks system and the National Park Service in Marin County, did not respond to the California State Water Resources Board surveys in 2001.
States are doing a better job of monitoring, but standards are inconsistent
Across the nation, some coastal states have improved their monitoring, testing and notification practices. Twelve states have initiated or expanded monitoring programs: Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina and Texas.
Even so, there still is no uniform and regular monitoring nationwide. Oregon does not regularly monitor beach water, and Louisiana and Washington have no statewide monitoring programs.
Bush Administration reneges on beach pollution protection
A national law passed in 2000, the BEACH Act, encourages states to establish monitoring programs for beach water quality and promptly warn the public if bacteria levels exceed 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, by 2004, EPA's health standards for beach water quality or standards. In response to an NRDC consent decree, EPA is also now required to set minimum technology standards for controlling storm water runoff from construction and development projects. However, just last month, the Office of Management and Budget gutted EPA's proposed standards.
Another leading cause of beach water closures is raw sewage discharges from combined and sanitary sewers. For more than a year EPA has held up proposed regulations that would minimize raw sewage discharges and notify the public not to swim in sewage-contaminated waters.
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.
Additional Downloadable Material for the Press
Questions and answers about this year's report in PDF format, 151k.
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