20 Years Protecting the Nation's Beaches

This year marks the 20th anniversary of NRDC’s annual beach closing report, Testing the Waters.  As someone who was involved from the beginning and oversaw our work on the report for the first 12 years, it’s an opportune moment to pause and reflect on what the report has accomplished.

When Allen Hershkowitz and I started this project in 1991, we were spurred on by concern about hypodermic needles washing up on New Jersey and New York beaches. We wondered why some beaches were closed while others remained opened. We learned that states, even counties within a state, differed in terms of their water quality standards, their monitoring frequency, and their public notification practices. We found that beach goers were subject to very different degrees of protection, or even no protection at all. One beach would be closed while a beach with similar conditions in a neighboring county would be open. We also learned that the most prevalent concern with beach water quality was contamination from pathogens—viruses and bacteria in inadequately treated sewage and polluted runoff. Pathogens can cause people to get sick –including ear, nose, and throat problems, gastroenteritis, dysentery, hepatitis and respiratory illness. Consequences of these illnesses can be greater for children, the elderly and those with weakened immune systems. We found that even swimming in waters that just met EPA’s recommended beach water standard would mean that, on average, one person out of nineteen would become sick with gastroenteritis.

We started by looking at states in the northeast and California, but quickly expanded to other coastal states, the Great Lakes, and territories.  The more we looked, the more beach closings or advisories we found. We were shocked by how many areas either had no or very limited beach water monitoring and how the health standards to measure beach water contamination differed from place to place.  We began publicizing the fact that some popular vacation spots had no beach water monitoring or did not notify the public when health standards were exceeded. We labeled them as “Beach Bums.”  We typically found that the next year when we did our report, they had instituted beach water monitoring and public notification programs!  In contrast, we identified as “Beach Buddies” communities that were doing a good job by regularly monitoring and always notifying the public if the beach water health standard was exceeded.  Later, we added as a criterion efforts to curb the sources of beach water contamination –which ultimately is the best answer.

Initially, we had to gather the data ourselves with paper surveys that were sent to the states and territories. In some states (for example, Connecticut), we had to collect the data directly from county health departments.  It was a huge data gathering and management task. If a state or county repeatedly refused to provide data, we let them know we would call them out in our report as being uncooperative –and that brought many around. Eventually, EPA initiated a comprehensive data gathering effort and we were able to base our annual report largely on the information contained in that data base (except, where there were gaps, in which case we continued to directly gather the information).

The report has shined a spotlight each year on state and local beach monitoring practices and led to many states initiating or expanding their beach monitoring programs (for example, Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Maine, Massachusetts, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, and Texas). Ultimately, it led to the BEACHES Act of 2000, that requires states to conduct monitoring programs and to utilize EPA’s recommended water quality standard or one equally protective, provides funding for state monitoring, and requires EPA to conduct research and update its beach water health standard.

Testing the Waters shows the power that information can have in highlighting problems and stimulating change.

I am very proud to have been part of this effort and look forward to NRDC’s continued role in protecting beach goers from swimming in polluted waters.

 The 20th annual Testing the Waters: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches