Beach Report Shows Why We Need New Protections from Runoff Pollution

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Happy Testing the Waters Day!  Today, NRDC releases its annual report on beach closings and swimming advisories and information on monitored water quality at thousands of beaches across the nation’s coasts and Great Lakes shores.  It’s also the first day in a long time that my colleagues and I can look forward to a full night’s sleep, after months of collecting data, analyzing information, summarizing the results, designing the presentation of the report, and reaching out to the public and the media. We’re releasing the report today, in advance of the July 4th holiday, because we know that millions of Americans are making their beach vacation plans.  I, for one, am looking forward to getting to Humarock in Massachusetts, Seaview on Fire Island in New York, and Sandy Point State Park in Maryland at various points over the summer.

Despite the mountain of data and information in the report, its findings are relatively easy to describe.  We found that the number of beach closing and advisory days in 2011 reached the third-highest level in the 22-year history of our report, totaling 23,481 days. More than two-thirds of closings and advisories were issued because bacteria levels in beach water were worse than applicable public health standards, potentially indicating that there’s human or animal waste in the water. The portion of all monitoring samples that were worse than national recommended health standards for designated beach areas remained stable at eight percent in 2011. The largest known cause of closings and swimming advisories was stormwater runoff (47 percent, compared with 36 percent last year). The 2011 results confirm that our nation’s beaches continue to experience significant water pollution that puts swimmers and local economies at risk.

These results are a call to action to clean up America’s beaches, and this year brings two important opportunities to improve swimmers’ safety from pollution at the beach.  The first is one that my colleague, Steve Fleischli, has explained in detail.  We need to significantly strengthen the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed recommended standards for recreational waters, which would leave the public inadequately protected from being exposed to unsafe levels of disease-causing bacteria and viruses. Throughout the new interactive website for the report, you’ll see opportunities to take action and let EPA know you want beach water quality standards that fully protect public health.  I hope you’ll weigh in.

Although these beach water standards are critical, ultimately the most important long-term action is to adopt 21st-century solutions that address the biggest sources of beach pollution, particularly urban stormwater.  Rain falling on impervious surfaces like roads, roofs, and parking lots contributes to both contaminated runoff and sewage overflows.

To help solve beach contamination and other problems caused by runoff pollution, many leaders around the country are implementing green infrastructure – a suite of low-impact development techniques aimed at making the urban and suburban landscape function more like natural conditions.  Green infrastructure includes green roofs, porous pavement, and street plantings, which stop rain where it falls. Green infrastructure effectively reduces the amount of runoff that makes its way into beach water or triggers harmful sewage overflows, transforming potential beach pollution into a tremendous local water supply resource.  Late last year, NRDC published a major analysis of green infrastructure programs in communities around the country, called Rooftops to Rivers II, which shows decisively that these approaches are the future of stormwater management.

In speaking with beach officials while preparing Testing the Waters this year, we also learned about a number of greener approaches being implemented to improve beach water quality.  Ultimately, the best such approaches are ones that fully retain, infiltrate, evaporate, or reuse all of the rainfall a site receives, as doing so prevents 100 percent of the pollution in that volume of water from ever reaching our beaches. But if full on-site retention is impossible, these green techniques also can help reduce beach pollution by using the natural filtration capabilities of soil and vegetation to filter pollutants from runoff.

Consider a couple of examples:

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In 2009, three of Door County, Wisconsin’s beaches had high rates of monitoring samples that exceeded the state’s daily maximum bacterial standards: Anclam Park Beach (29%), Haines Park Beach (24%), and Ephraim Beach (22%).  To improve beachwater quality and protect the health of its residents, the Door County Soil and Water Conservation Department (SWCD) was awarded $250,000 in Great Lakes Restoration Initiative Funding to implement stormwater best management practices at three beaches to reduce the concentration of E.coli in beach water and filter contaminants from runoff.  One year later, Anclam Park Beach had no samples that exceeded bacterial standards while Haines Park Beach and Ephraim Beach had only a 3% exceedence rate.    Driven by the success of these projects, SWCD received $702,300 in 2011 for efforts at four more beaches in Door County, including reducing impervious surfaces near beach areas and installing rain gardens and bio-filters. Projects will also seek to reduce gull populations on the beach. (Photo: Bio-filters at Liberty Grove in Door County; Credit: Door County SWCD)

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    On the West Coast, cities are also turning to green techniques as a way to improve beach water quality while beautifying the community.  Required by state regulators to reduce pollutants in stormwater runoff, the University of California-San Diego completed a $4.9 million water management project that features bioswales, walls, and water diversion structures.  These elements work together as a system that filters pollutants from almost all runoff before it reaches the beach, thereby improving beachwater quality.  (Photo: Bioswales remove pollutants from runoff; Credit: Kimberly O'Connell, UCSD)

  • In addition to these communities, the Root-Pike Watershed, Hermosa Beach, and Bristol Town Beach have also implemented green infrastructure projects to help improve beachwater quality and reduce the number of beach closings.
  • As commendable as efforts to implement green infrastructure voluntarily are, the nation’s beach areas and other waters need comprehensive protections from runoff pollution.  The best way to accomplish this goal is for EPA to reform the national Clean Water Act requirements for sources of urban and suburban runoff.

    Existing EPA regulations for sources of runoff pollution, designed more than 20 years ago, have not been implemented in a rigorous way. Historically, the permitting process for stormwater systems has done a poor job of ensuring that discharges from those systems will not contribute to degraded water quality. In particular, municipal sewer systems and private developers frequently have not been required to meet quantitative limits on stormwater runoff volumes and associated pollution levels from sites undergoing development or redevelopment, and they have rarely been required to retrofit developed sites to reduce runoff pollution. Moreover, current requirements typically do not apply to rapidly developing areas outside of existing cities.

    In view of these deficiencies, the EPA has initiated an effort to reform the minimum requirements applicable to urban and suburban runoff sources. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to improve the requirements that govern how stormwater sources are controlled to protect water quality. In response to litigation filed by NRDC and the Waterkeeper Alliance several years ago over EPA's failure to update its standards for pollution from construction and development activities, the agency is now working to update the requirements that apply to long-term runoff from developed sites. A proposed rule is expected in the coming year.

    To adequately address water quality concerns posed by runoff pollution, the EPA's new rules must adopt objective performance requirements for control of runoff volume from new development and redeveloped sites, which will create strong incentives for the robust deployment of green infrastructure approaches.  In addition, the revised EPA rules should require retrofits in existing developed areas and as part of infrastructure reconstruction projects, because impervious areas that exist right now are responsible for major water quality problems already.  Finally, the agency needs to ensure that significant runoff sources are covered wherever they are located, not just urban areas.

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    If EPA follows NRDC’s advice by strengthening its recreational water quality standards to protect public health and by overhauling the baseline requirements for sources of runoff pollution, I expect future editions of Testing the Waters will tell a much happier tale.  In the meantime, though, there are lots of great beaches in America, so use our guide to finding a clean beach and our new interactive mapping feature and have fun this summer.