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Pollution-Triggered Beach Closures Surge In L.A. County As Both Local and National Water Quality Alerts Hit Record Highs

Problems Likely to Worsen Under Current Federal policies, Says NRDC

LOS ANGELES (August 5, 2004) - After three years of steady declines, beach closing and swim advisory days due to polluted ocean water shot up 60 percent last year in Los Angeles County, hitting an all-time high, according to the 14th annual beach report released today by NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council). The huge jump is somewhat mysterious because it does not appear to correlate with greater rainfall or with increased water monitoring, according to NRDC. A possible explanation is an ongoing failure by some Southern California municipalities to identify and control sources of contamination.

"Testing the Waters: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches" reports that Los Angeles County led California in 2003 with its record 1,459 beach closing and advisory days (up from 913 in 2002) followed by Orange County (1,329), San Diego County (896), and Ventura County (720). Ventura's closing and advisory days represented a 73 percent increase over 2002. (For the complete report, click here.)

"Even during the summer months, many California beach-goers are faced with a lousy choice," said Anjali Jaiswal, an attorney in NRDC's Coastal Water Quality Project. "They can swim, surf and dive in bacteria-infested waters and risk getting sick, or they can stay out of the ocean. Although it's commendable that California municipalities now regularly monitor beach water quality, it's not enough just to ascertain that water is contaminated. Authorities should focus on preventing sewage overflows, reducing contaminated stormwater runoff and setting strong public health standards for bacteria, viruses, parasites and other pollutants."

The City of Los Angeles took a big step toward combating coastal water pollution last month by voting to place a $500 million bond measure before voters in November to clean up urban runoff and sewage discharges that flow into the ocean. The action came in response to a federal consent decree won by NRDC that requires Southern California governments to reduce a wide array of specific pollutants that now foul coastal water.

"Our beaches are enjoyed by millions of residents and visitors each year," said Los Angeles City Councilmember Antonio Villaraigosa. "I urge voters to help protect this treasured public resource by supporting the water quality bond this November."

One of the report's most disturbing findings is that local authorities around the country concede they don't know the sources of pollution causing or contributing to 68 percent of closing and advisory days last year -- the highest rate of "unknown" sources in the 14 years NRDC has been issuing the survey.

California saw 5,384 beach closing and swim advisory days last year, an 18 percent increase over 2002, the report found. Roughly 90 percent of all state beach closing and advisory days were triggered by bacterial contamination, such as E. coli, and in nearly all of those cases, the source of the contamination was never discovered.

National Perspective

Nationally, the number of beach closing and advisory days jumped 51 percent from 2002 to 2003 -- from 12,078 days in 2002 to 18,284 days in 2003, an increase of 6,206 days. The states with the biggest increase in closures and advisory days were Delaware (82 percent increase), Florida (+128 percent), Mississippi (+337 percent), New Jersey (+318 percent), New York (+138 percent), Rhode Island (+196 percent) and South Carolina (+162 percent).

The national trend of higher numbers of closures and advisory days is due to a combination of better monitoring of beachwater quality -- thanks in part to increased federal funding triggered by the BEACH (Beaches Environmental Assessment, Closure and Health) Act of 2000 -- and the failure of most municipalities to identify and control sources of beachwater pollution. Pollution from sewage spills and urban runoff continues to contaminate many of our beaches with disease-causing bacteria and other pathogens. High bacteria levels, indicating the presence of human or animal waste, prompted 88 percent of the closure and advisory days in 2003. Swimming near storm drains is known to increase the risk of colds, fever, chills, sore throats, diarrhea, and other symptoms of illness.

Beach Buddies and Beach Bums

NRDC today saluted four "Beach Buddies" -- communities that monitor beachwater regularly, close beaches or notify the public when at least one of EPA's health standards is exceeded, and take significant steps to reduce pollution, such as improving sewage or stormwater treatment, limiting coastal development, and preserving coastal wetlands. This year's Beach Buddies are: Newport Beach, California; Willard Beach in South Portland, Maine; Ocean City, Maryland; and Warren Town Beach, Rhode Island.

NRDC also released its annual list of "Beach Bums" -- communities that are aware that stormwater and sewage spoil their beaches but do not regularly monitor beachwater for swimmer safety or notify the public if health standards are exceeded. This year's Beach Bums are: Bar Harbor, Maine; Kennebunkport, Maine; St. Lawrence County, New York (all 10 beaches); and Frenchman's Bar in Vancouver, Washington. St. Lawrence County's beaches and Frenchman's Bar were Beach Bums last year.

Administration Weakens Beach Pollution Protections

The current administration began working to undermine Clean Water Act protections for beachwater the first day it took office and continues to issue new policies that undermine Clean Water Act programs that help keep beachwater safe for swimming. The administration also has declined to protect many wetlands and other natural filters of beachwater, rolled back treatment requirements for sewage, allowed contaminated stormwater from new development to pollute rivers, slashed federal funding for clean water programs, and delayed and derailed state efforts to clean up polluted waterways. "As surely as pollution flows downhill, this administration's policies will increase beach closures, contaminate coastal waters, and make swimmers sick," said Nancy Stoner, director of NRDC's Clean Water Project.

Sewage is one of the biggest sources of coastal and estuarine water pollution in the country. For more than three years, the Environmental Protection Agency has held up rules that would minimize raw sewage discharges and require sewer systems to monitor and detect sewer overflows before they reach the beach. Instead of issuing a rule that would protect beachgoers, the EPA is now promoting a policy that would allow sewer operators to discharge inadequately treated sewage during heavy rains. "Exposure to inadequately treated sewage can cause vomiting and diarrhea for healthy people, but can be life threatening for young children, the elderly, and people with compromised immune systems," said Stoner. "The EPA's policy is irresponsible."

The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, nonprofit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has more than 1 million members and e-activists 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 2004
National press release
California-specific release: Español


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