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Contamination Forces More Beach Closings Nationwide

SAN FRANCISCO (July 28, 2005) -- Beach closings and advisories due to hazardous bacterial contamination in San Francisco and Los Angeles counties hit record highs in 2004 for the second consecutive year, according to an annual report released today by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Across the nation, there were nearly 20,000 closing and health advisory days in 2004, the most since NRDC began tracking the problem 15 years ago. One reason, the group says, is that improved monitoring spurred by earlier reports is now uncovering the true extent of the pollution problem.

The report, "Testing the Waters," covers ocean, bay and Great Lakes beaches nationwide and is available online here. Another national organization, Surfrider Foundation, released its 2005 "State of the Beach" report today, which provides information on beach ecology, access, erosion and water quality, including material from NRDC's report and other sources. The report is available here.)

Despite the records set in San Francisco and Los Angeles, California's statewide closing and advisory days decreased 26 percent, from 5,384 in 2003 to 3,985 in 2004. More than three-quarters of the statewide decrease occurred in San Diego, Orange, and Ventura counties. Significantly reduced winter sampling in Ventura may explain the decline there, but the reason for the declines in San Diego and Orange counties is unknown. Meanwhile, San Francisco had 162 closing and advisory days in 2004, a 35 percent jump from 2003. Los Angeles had 1,469 closing and advisory days in 2004, an increase of 1 percent from 2003, and more than 60 percent from 2002.

"Instead of closing our beaches, let's clean up the water," said Anjali Jaiswal, an attorney in NRDC's Coastal Water Quality Project. "Authorities have gotten better at finding the problem. Now they need to stop the pollution at its source by repairing and replacing leaky sewage and septic systems, and cleaning up contaminated runoff. That's the only way to protect public health, the environment and California's gigantic tourist economy."

Total travel spending in California coastal counties was $82.5 billion and supported 892,600 jobs in 2004, according to the economic and market research firm Dean Runyan Associates.

The link between urbanization and coastal water pollution raises a concern for rapidly growing communities along California's central coast from Santa Barbara to Monterey. "These communities are located along some of the most beautiful coastlines in the world, and they're developing fast," said David Beckman, director of NRDC's Coastal Water Quality Project. "It's critical that they implement strong water pollution control measures before their beaches become as contaminated as those in Southern California."

Southern California "Beach Bums"

NRDC's report identifies the best and worst performers when it comes to protecting beachgoers from contaminated water. The annual list of Beach Bums-communities that do not monitor pollution and warn the public when beachwater is unsafe, or fail to control sources of pollution-includes Los Angeles County and 44 Southern California cities for opposing plans to control urban runoff, the biggest source of beach pollution in the region. Although many of these jurisdictions are inland, their runoff -- laden with trash and bacteria -- flows directly to the beach, where it contaminates coastal water.

Those 44 cities have spent more than $1.34 million so far in an attempt to fight the regional cleanup plan in court. The plan improves on past stormwater control schemes by requiring measurable improvement in coastal water quality; not merely a proof of effort by cities, industry and developers. The County of Los Angeles, which challenged the cleanup plan separately, refused requests by NRDC for an accounting of its legal costs. All five county and city lawsuits were rejected by a Los Angeles Superior Court judge in March, but the county and many of the cities are appealing.

City of L.A. Named "Beach Buddy"

NRDC also named its annual Beach Buddies -- jurisdictions that monitor beachwater quality 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. This year, the City of Los Angeles is a Beach Buddy for putting Proposition O on the ballot last November. The measure, which passed with more than 76 percent of the vote, dedicates $500 million to reducing the garbage, toxic chemicals and dangerous bacteria that pollute rivers and beaches.

National Beach Data

According to the report, the states with the biggest jump in closing and advisory days compared with 2003 were Texas (1,074 percent), Washington (700 percent), Maryland (405 percent), Minnesota (333 percent), Michigan (174 percent), New York (117 percent) and Illinois (102 percent). Hawaii went from no closing or advisory days in 2003 to 1,169 in 2004; Maine went from none in 2003 to 56 in 2004. Nationally the number jumped 9 percent, from 18,224 days in 2003 to 19,950 days in 2004.

"This is a nationwide problem that demands a nationwide solution," said Nancy Stoner, director of NRDC's Clean Water Project. "We need stronger enforcement for those who aren't doing their share, and we need more federal help for local communities to control runoff and update their aging sewage systems. Just this week, Congress cut the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, the main federal support for water infrastructure. We're going backward." (For more information on the state revolving fund's status, click here.)

Eighty-five percent of the closing and advisory days were prompted by high bacteria levels, indicating the presence of human or animal waste. The main culprits are improperly treated sewage and bacteria-contaminated stormwater runoff. The bacteria cause a wide range of diseases, including gastroenteritis; dysentery; hepatitis; ear, nose and throat problems; and respiratory ailments. Consequences are worse for children, the elderly, pregnant women, and anyone with a weakened immune system.

Polluted beachwater not only poses a threat to public health, it can hurt local businesses. Ocean-related economic activity alone contributed more than $200 billion to the U.S. economy in 2000, and coastal tourism and recreation are two of the fastest growing businesses in the country, according to the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy. But U.S. "beachanomics" would be even more robust if communities were not forced to close their beaches because of pollution. For example, one study cited in NRDC's report estimated that closing a beach on Lake Michigan could result in economic losses as high as $37,000 per day.

Reasons for the jump in closings and advisories last year include:

  • the continuing failure of most municipalities to identify and fix pollution sources;

  • more frequent monitoring, prompted at least in part by earlier NRDC reports;

  • heavier than average rainfall in some states, which flushed more pollution into local waterways;

  • implementation of the federal Beaches Environmental Assessment, Closure and Health (BEACH) Act, which passed in 2000 and went into effect in early 2004. The law requires all coastal and Great Lakes states and U.S. territories to adopt the Environmental Protection Agency's recommended bacterial standards, provides grants for monitoring and public notification programs, and requires the EPA to make beachwater quality data easily accessible.

Beach Buddies and Beach Bums

  • Besides the City of Los Angeles, NRDC's report named two other Beach Buddies: Scarborough State Beach in Rhode Island (between Narragansett and Point Judith) and Door County in Wisconsin, northeast of Green Bay.

  • Besides Los Angeles County and the 44 cities in the area, the report names two other Beach Bums: Van Buren County in Michigan (west of Kalamazoo on Lake Michigan) and Atlantic Beach in North Carolina (south of Morehead City).

"These two groups represent the best and worst in water quality and health safeguards for beachgoers," said Mark Dorfman, the author of the NRDC report. "They are case studies in what, and what not, to do to protect the 180 million Americans who come out to enjoy the beaches each year."

NRDC Recommendations

The report calls on Congress to fully fund the BEACH Act and the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, the principal source of federal support for water infrastructure. The report also urges the Environmental Protection Agency to tighten controls on sewer overflows and stormwater discharges, ensure that states and localities monitor water quality and notify the public when it does not meet bacterial standards, and set standards to protect the public from waterborne pathogens.

At the state and local level, NRDC recommends that governments adopt rigorous monitoring and beach closure programs, identify pollution sources, and get to work cleaning them up. In addition, authorities should issue advisories when heavy rainfall causes bacteria levels to jump, and when sewer overflows or other similar problems jeopardize beachwater safety.

Citizens also can do a number of things to improve beachwater quality, including capturing runoff from roofs and driveways; maintaining septic systems; picking up pet waste; avoiding chemical fertilizers and pesticides on lawns and gardens; and supporting legislation and funding to keep beachwater clean, fix aging sewer systems, and protect wetlands and coastal vegetation.

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 online activists nationwide, served from offices in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Related NRDC Pages, English
Summary of Findings
Guide to Finding Clean Beaches
Report: Testing the Waters 2005
National Press Release
Local/Regional Releases:
California | Chicago | Florida | L.A. | N.Y.

Página Relacionadas de NRDC, En Español
Sumario de Hallazgos
Preguntas Frecuentes
Guía para Encontrar Playas Limpias
Reporte: Examinando las Aguas 2005 (Resumen Ejecutive)
Comunicado de Prensa
Comunicados de Prensa para
California | Chicago | Florida | L.A. | N.Y.

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