NRDC Report: Cleaning Up America's Beaches Requires Leadership on Polluted Runoff

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I have a lot of memories of the beach, having grown up in a coastal town in Massachusetts, not far from a bunch of great public beaches.  I took swim lessons at Green Harbor, where I swear a basking shark once swam through our group.  And my buddies and I used to have hitchhiking races home from Humarock beach – the first one in my neighbor’s pool won.  (If my kids are reading this, hitchhiking is something that nobody ever does anymore, especially you.)


In retrospect, we might have been unreasonably afraid of a toothless shark.  Especially given what we know now, that shark was far from the scariest thing in the water.  What we should’ve been worrying about at the beach were the viruses, bacteria, and parasites that lurked in the water.  That’s because the water at the nation’s coastal beaches often is contaminated by these pathogens, which cause a range of waterborne illnesses including stomach flu, skin rashes, pinkeye, ear, nose and throat problems, dysentery, hepatitis, respiratory ailments, neurological disorders and other serious health problems.

I know that’s not the cheeriest news to deliver the week before the Fourth of July, but people need to know about these dangers as they plan beach trips this summer.  Fortunately, for over two decades, NRDC has been collecting, analyzing and reporting government data on the state of beaches across the country, in our annual report, “Testing the Waters.”  This year marks the 23rd edition of our report, and it’s an important tool to help families choose where to spend their day at the beach and to guard against the risks of swimming in polluted water. 

Below is a summary of our findings and one of the key pollution solutions we need to adopt to improve beachwater quality.  But I hope you’ll explore our site yourself, especially the cool map feature that allows you to enter your zip code, your hometown, or your favorite beach and find out what the water was like there last year and whether the beach was closed or had a swimming advisory.

Major Findings

Here’s what we learned this year.

Last year, there were 20,120 days that America’s coastal and Great Lakes beaches were closed or placed under an advisory warning about the risks of swimming. Although this was down from last year, it still marks the 8th time in the past 9 years that the total has eclipsed 20,000.

Water quality at America’s beaches remained largely constant, with 7 percent of beachwater samples violating national recommended public health standards in 2012, compared to 8 percent in 2011 and 2010 and 7 percent each year from 2006-2009.

More than 80% of the closings and advisories in 2012 were issued because testing revealed indicator bacteria levels in the water that were worse than public health standards, potentially indicating the presence of human or animal waste.

The Great Lakes region had the highest violation rate of beachwater standards, 10 percent of samples in 2012, while the Delaware-Maryland-Virginia region had the lowest rate of violations at 3 percent of samples.

Individual states with the highest rates of reported contamination were:

 Those with the lowest reported rates of contamination last year were:


Now let’s talk about some standout beaches. In our report, NRDC rates 200 popular beaches around the country on a 5-star scale, based on water quality and whether they follow beach management practices that protect the public.  For 2012, 13 beaches earned our premier “Superstar” 5-star rating for exceptionally low violation rates and strong testing and safety practices.

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These great beaches can be found all around the country:
  • There are three in California: Newport, Bolsa Chica and San Clemente State Beaches.
  • Two in Alabama: Gulf Shores Public and Gulf State Park Pavilion Beaches.
  • Two in Minnesota: Park Point Franklin Park and Lafayette Community Club beaches.
  • Another two in New Hampshire: Hampton Beach State Park and Wallis Sands Beach.
  • Delaware also had two – Rehoboth Beach – Rehoboth Avenue and Dewey Beach – Dagsworthy.
  • With one each, there’s Maryland’s Ocean City Beach, and Michigan’s Bay City State Recreation Area.


On the other side of the coin, we found that sections of 11 beaches have had persistent water quality challenges. Specifically, more than 25 percent of water samples at these beaches violated national health standards every year from 2008 to 2012.

Like the five-star beaches, these beaches – which we call “repeat offenders” – can be found all over the country.  Ohio has four repeat offenders:  Lakeshore Park; Euclid State Park; Villa Angela State Park; and Edson Creek.  California has three, including four sections of Avalon Beach, six sections of Doheny State Beach and Poche County Beach.  Rounding out the list are two sections of Jeorse Park Beach in Indiana; Beachwood Beach in New Jersey; Ontario Beach in New York’s Great Lakes region; and South Shore Beach in Wisconsin.


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Solutions – Cleaning Up a Major Pollution Source

Why are beaches polluted and what can be done about it?  There are a variety of causes, but when beach managers identify specific causes of beach closings and advisories (unfortunately the majority of such actions are attributed to “unknown” sources), the leading one is stormwater runoff.  That’s not too surprising, because polluted urban and suburban stormwater is the primary reason that many water bodies can’t meet state water quality standards meant to protect waterways for swimming, fishing, and other uses; 13% of rivers and streams, 18% of lakes, and 32% of all estuaries that don't meet standards are primarily impaired by stormwater.

When it rains, the water hitting hard surfaces like buildings, parking lots, and roadways is unable to seep into the ground or be retained by natural vegetation and evaporated back to the atmosphere.  Instead, it pours down gutters and out into the roads, where you can see it pick up cigarette butts, animal waste, dirt and grime, and oil and grease.  In most places, this polluted runoff goes straight to our rivers and streams, where it can make waterways unsafe for swimming or fishing. 

Stormwater also causes a host of other problems.  In over 750 cities around the country, stormwater is carried in the same pipes as sewage from people’s homes and businesses.  In dry weather or small storms, the mixture is sent to a sewage treatment plant.  However, these ancient systems are designed to overflow when there is too much rain for the plant to handle – dumping a sickening stinky mess into our waterways.  Also, because we don’t give stormwater a way to seep into the ground or go back to the air, storms cause a huge volume of water to rush down our streams, tearing them up in the process, and flooding local communities

The good news is that we know how to deal with this pollution.  We can stop stormwater and sewage from polluting beaches by using green infrastructure in our cities and suburbs. This includes porous pavement, green roofs, parks, roadside plantings and rain barrels. These features retain rainwater where it falls, by storing it, letting it filter into the ground naturally, or letting it evaporate.  The great thing about green infrastructure is everybody wins: beaches are cleaner, there’s less flooding from stormwater, and sewage overflows are prevented. But that’s not all: these practices also beautify neighborhoods and make them healthier by cleaning the air and lowering urban temperatures. Jobs are created. And heating and cooling costs go down. Several cities are already using green infrastructure and reaping the benefits.

Now, Environmental Protection Agency can help cities and suburbs all across America to have the same opportunities.  EPA has committed to develop important new rules to curb this source of water pollution.  That rule has the potential to significantly reduce polluted runoff by requiring the folks responsible for creating stormwater to design their sites to retain the vast majority of it where it falls.  You can help EPA get these needed reforms out by demanding them from the agency.