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California Beach Closures and Advisories Third Highest in a Decade

Problems Likely to Worsen Under Current Federal Policies

LOS ANGELES (August 13, 2003) -- The number of beach closures and advisories in California last year was the third highest in more than a decade, according to the 13th annual beach water quality report from NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council).

This year, "Testing the Waters: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches" cites more than 4,500 closures and advisories in California caused by pollution. The report also found that authorities could not pinpoint the source of contamination in more than 75 percent of the closures due to high bacteria levels.

"Californians are still swimming in dirty water," said David Beckman, who directs NRDC's Coastal Water Quality Project in Los Angeles. "Most local authorities are not doing enough to identify and control the pollution contaminating our beach water, and they're failing to protect millions of people who swim at our beaches year round."

Nationally there were more than 12,000 closures and advisories at ocean, bay, Great Lakes and fresh water beaches, the second highest level in a decade. According to NRDC, the general trend of more closures and advisories is due in part to better monitoring. Unfortunately, better monitoring shows that pollution from sewage spills and urban, suburban, and agricultural runoff is contaminating our beaches with disease-causing bacteria and other pathogens. High bacteria levels, indicating the presence of human or animal waste, prompted 87 percent of the closures and advisories across the country in 2002.

Similarly disturbing, authorities were unable to attribute a source for the beach water contamination violating health or safety standards for 62 percent of closings and advisories nationally last year (7,505 of 12,184) -- the highest rate of "unknown sources" since NRDC first issued the report in 1991.

California beach closures and advisories were down 31 percent in 2002 (to 4,553 from 6,568 in 2001). More than 82 percent of the decline was due to dry weather, which reduced urban runoff. Many California counties saw half as much rainfall last year as in 2001.

Orange County reported the highest number of closings and advisories last year, followed by Los Angeles, San Diego, Santa Barbara, Ventura, San Mateo, Santa Cruz, Monterey, San Francisco, Sonoma, Contra Costa and San Luis Obispo.

"Our beaches are among L.A.'s greatest assets," said Los Angeles City Councilmember Jack Weiss, who is pushing the city to clean up its runoff. "They're a favorite destination for residents and tourists alike, but as the NRDC report shows, we're not doing enough to keep them clean and safe. That puts both public health and our economy at risk."

Beach Bums and Buddies

The report named city and regional authorities trying to stem the flow of pollution to beaches "Beach Buddies." As in past years, Beach Buddies monitor beach water regularly, close beaches or notify the public when standards are exceeded, and use the Environmental Protection Agency's health standards as guidelines. But now NRDC recognizes only those communities that also have taken significant steps to reduce beach pollution by, for example, improving sewage or storm water treatment, limiting coastal development, or preserving coastal wetlands.

NRDC's Beach Buddies this year are:

  • Encinitas, California;
  • Milford, Connecticut;
  • Quincy, Massachusetts; and
  • Racine, Wisconsin.

The report also named Lake Nacimiento, an inland freshwater lake near Paso Robles in San Luis Obispo County -- along with 54 other beaches nationwide -- a "Beach Bum." Beach Bums are communities that do not regularly monitor beach water for swimmer safety or notify the public if health standards are exceeded and have known storm water or sewage sources that could pollute their water. These beaches included 19 in New York, 12 in Michigan, and 14 in Hawaii. Some of these beaches may have instituted monitoring and notification programs this year. For the entire Beach Bum list, click here.

Bush Administration Rolling Back Beach Pollution Protections

NRDC has seen progress over the last 13 years. At least 12 states have initiated or expanded monitoring programs since NRDC began its annual report, and over the next two years, states and localities will begin implementing federally funded programs that are currently under development under the 2000 BEACH Act, which encourages states to establish monitoring and public notification programs for beach water quality. But now our beach water is facing another threat: the Bush administration.

From the first day it took office, the Bush administration has been rolling back programs that keep U.S. beach water clean and safe for swimming, charges NRDC. And now the administration is proposing new policies that would leave many of the nation's waterways completely unprotected, reduce treatment requirements for sewage, allow contaminated storm water from new development to pollute rivers, and delay and derail state efforts to clean up polluted waterways.

For example, for more than two years, the Bush administration has held up rules that would minimize raw sewage discharges and require sewer system operators to detect sewer overflows before they reach the beach. Instead of issuing a rule that would protect beachgoers, the Bush administration is promoting a policy that would allow sewer operators to discharge inadequately treated sewage into waterways whenever it rains.

"It's critical that we maintain and strengthen the Clean Water Act," said U.S. Rep. Hilda Solis, a sponsor of tough clean water protections. "I applaud NRDC for focusing public attention on this problem."

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 550,000 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 2003
National press release
California-specific release: Español

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