Beach Closings Soar Following Better Testing and Reporting

'The more you look, the more you find,' says NRDC's annual report

WASHINGTON (August 8, 2001) - There were nearly twice as many beach closings and advisories last year than there were in 1999, compelling evidence that the nation's beaches have a major water pollution problem.

That and other unpleasant news about the status of U.S. beaches was announced by NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), which today released its 11th annual report, "Testing the Waters: A Guide to Beach Water Quality at Vacation Beaches." Although some states experienced heavy rainfall, prompting more closings and advisories, most of the increase in closings and advisories followed increased monitoring, better testing standards for bacteria and other pathogens, and more complete reporting. There were 11,270 closings and advisories in 2000 compared to 6,160 beach closings and advisories in 1999.

This year's report also found another disturbing trend: The number of beaches reporting pollution problems from an unknown source jumped from 40 percent in 1999 to 56 percent in 2000.

"We're seeing a much more realistic picture of the beach water pollution problem now that more states are monitoring and reporting, but we haven't turned the corner on identifying the sources of pollution and preventing them in the first place," said Sarah Chasis, an NRDC senior attorney and director of the organization's water and coastal program. "It's outrageous that more than half of the time local authorities didn't know where all the pollution was coming from when they had to close a beach or post an advisory."

States doing better job of monitoring

Over the 11 years since NRDC began publishing the annual report, coastal states have improved their monitoring, testing, and notification practices -- especially states that NRDC labeled "beach bums" for poor monitoring and notification practices. Eleven states have initiated or expanded monitoring programs: Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Maine, Massachusetts, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina and Texas. Additionally, California, Massachusetts and Florida have passed "beach bills" that mandate more regular beach monitoring and public notification.

Last year, several states increased the number of beaches they monitor. Alabama, Mississippi, California, Texas, Massachusetts, South Carolina and Florida all reported monitoring more sites. Meanwhile, Guam -- a U.S. territory that had not reported on its beach water quality since 1997 -- reported 1,691 closings and advisories.

NRDC also found that the number of state agencies that have adopted at least one of the Environmental Protection Agency's recommended health standards for swimmer safety increased from 51 in 1999 to 77 in 2000. But better standards and more frequent monitoring have revealed that beach pollution is more extensive than we realized. Elevated bacteria counts that exceeded swimmer safety standards accounted for 85 percent of the monitored beaches' closings and advisories. NRDC predicts that high bacteria counts will prove to be a growing problem as more states adopt the stricter EPA testing standards.

The most frequent cause of closures and advisories continues to be stormwater runoff, leading to more than 4,102 closures or advisories last year. Breaks in pipelines or sewage treatment plant failures prompted more than 2,208 closings and advisories. Six percent of the closings and advisories last year were precautionary, due to rainfall known to carry pollution into beach water, chemical spills, red tides or strong waves.

No uniform nationwide monitoring, testing and notification

While more states are monitoring their beaches, there is still no uniform, regular monitoring across the nation, leaving some beach goers ignorant about water quality at their favorite beach. Oregon, for example, doesn't regularly monitor beach water for swimmer safety. Louisiana monitors a few beaches but has no statewide monitoring program. Washington also has no formal monitoring statewide program and leaves it to individual communities to voluntarily monitor their local beaches.

The standards authorities use for testing water quality, especially for detecting bacteria and pathogens, also vary across the country. Of the 130 agencies with marine water standards, 32 in eight states and Guam have adopted both of the EPA's recommended enterococcus standards for swimmer safety.

Finally, states and municipalities are inconsistent in the way they issue closings and advisories or notify the public when there is a pollution problem. Even if a state regularly tests water quality at its beaches, it may not close a beach when a health standard is exceeded. For example, some towns and counties in Connecticut, Florida, Maine, Michigan, New York, Virginia and Wisconsin do not always close beaches or issue an advisory when their water violates health standards.

A new national law encourages states to establish monitoring programs for water quality on their beaches and to promptly warn the public if harmful bacteria levels exceed acceptable health standards. States have to meet EPA standards under the law to receive federal funding for their beach monitoring and public notification programs. The law also requires all coastal states to adopt, within three years, health standards for beach water quality that are consistent with EPA's criteria under the Clean Water Act.

"NRDC's beach report has pressured states and localities to adopt better monitoring and notification practices and adopt the EPA testing standards, but more still needs to be done," said Mark Dorfman, the report's author. "EPA and the states need to effectively implement the new national BEACH Act, and Congress needs to fully fund it. And more needs to be done to clean up the known and unknown pollution sources causing beach closings."

Beach bums and buddies

NRDC annually releases a list of beach bums -- those beaches (or entire states) lacking regular monitoring and/or proper public notification programs -- and beach buddies -- beaches or states that monitor regularly, use EPA's recommended health standards, and notify the public when those standards are exceeded.

Last year, NRDC strengthened its criteria for beach buddy status. Now beach buddies must monitor their beach water at least once a week, use EPA's recommended bacteria standard, always close or issue an advisory after initial sampling or after prompt resampling if the EPA standard is exceeded, and have few, if any, advisories or closings. Few beaches met this standard. This year's beach buddies include

  • East Haven Town Beach, Connecticut
  • Hammonasset Beach State Park, Connecticut
  • Old Saybrook Town Beach, Connecticut
  • Waterford Town Beach, Connecticut
  • Brewster Beach, Massachusetts
  • Good Harbor Creek Beach, Massachusetts
  • Niles Beach in Gloucestor, Massachusetts
  • Pavillion Beach in Gloucester, Massachusetts

Beach bums for the year 2000 are:

  • Louisiana
  • Oregon

Neither state had a regular monitoring or public notification program.

The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, non-profit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has more than 500,000 members 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 2001

Additional Downloadable Material for the Press
NRDC's Recommendations for Reducing Beachwater Pollution in Microsoft Word format, 84k