Beach Closures and Advisories Up Again at Nation's Beaches

NRDC's 'Beach Buddy' Awards Now Go to Local Efforts to Reduce Pollution

WASHINGTON, DC (July 24, 2002) -- It's become the familiar refrain every summer: beach closures and advisories are up … again. NRDC's (Natural Resources Defense Council) 12th annual beach report released today found that there were 19 percent more closures and advisories in 2001 than in the previous year.

"Testing the Waters: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches" reports there were at least 13,410 closures and advisories at ocean and freshwater beaches in 2001, compared to at least 11,270 in 2000.

The annual trend of increasing closures and advisories is partly due to the fact that more municipalities are monitoring their beaches regularly. Increased monitoring offers a more comprehensive picture of the health of our nation's beaches, and it's not pretty: Pollution from sewage spills and urban runoff continues to contaminate many of our beaches with disease-causing bacteria and other pathogens. High bacteria levels, indicating the presence of human or animal waste, prompted 87 percent of the closures and advisories in 2001.

One of the report's most disturbing findings is that local authorities admit that they don't know the sources of pollution causing or contributing to more than half of the closures and advisories issued.

"The reporting agencies don't know the source of pollution because, in many cases, no one is systematically tracking it down and attempting to do anything about it," said Sarah Chasis, an NRDC senior attorney and director of the organization's water and coastal program. "Identifying the source of the problem is a critical step to improving beachwater quality. It's important not only to regularly monitor beaches and notify the public of contamination, but also to identify and control the pollution sources."

NRDC says some city and regional authorities are trying to stem the flow of pollution to beaches, but more needs to be done locally and nationally to address the pollution problem.

States are doing a better job of monitoring, but standards are inconsistent
Since 1990, when NRDC issued its first beach report, some coastal states have improved their monitoring, testing and notification practices. Twelve states have initiated or expanded monitoring programs: Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina and Texas. In addition, California, Massachusetts and Florida have passed "beach bills" that mandate more regular beach monitoring and public notification.

Even so, there still is no uniform and regular monitoring across the nation, leaving some beach- goers unaware about water quality at their favorite beaches. Oregon, for example, does not regularly monitor beach water for swimmer safety. Private groups monitor a few beaches in Louisiana, but there is no statewide monitoring program. Washington also has no formal statewide monitoring 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 other pathogens, also vary across the country. Of 138 agencies responsible for at least one marine or estuarine beach, only 38 agencies in seven states and Guam have adopted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's recommended bacteria standards. The seven states in which these communities are located are California, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia.

Of 124 agencies responsible for at least one freshwater beach, 29 agencies in 11 states and Guam have adopted the EPA's recommended freshwater standards. The 11 states in which these communities are located are Connecticut, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin.

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, most agencies in Hawaii, Maine, Rhode Island and Virginia only sometimes issue advisories and closures when standards are exceeded.

Bush administration reneges on beach pollution protection
A national law passed in 2000, the BEACH Act, encourages states to establish monitoring programs for beachwater quality and promptly warn the public if harmful bacteria levels exceed 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, by 2004, EPA's health standards for beachwater quality or standards that are equally protective of public health.

Although EPA has not issued final guidelines for implementing the BEACH Act, NRDC is concerned that the monitoring provisions and recommended standards will not be strong enough.

Of those surveys reporting a cause of closures and advisories, the most frequent contaminant is stormwater runoff, which caused more than 3,715 closures or advisories last year. In response to an NRDC consent decree, EPA is required to set minimum technology standards for controlling stormwater runoff from construction and development. However, just last month, the Office of Management and Budget gutted EPA's proposed standards.

"After OMB's handiwork, EPA's proposal now violates the law and would allow stormwater to further degrade our rivers, lakes and coastal waters," says Nancy Stoner, director of NRDC's Clean Water Project. "Stormwater is the largest identified source of coastal water pollution in the country."

Another leading cause of beachwater closures is bacteria-laden raw sewage discharges from combined and sanitary sewers. For more than a year EPA has held up proposed regulations that would minimize raw sewage discharges and notify the public not to swim in sewage-contaminated waters.

Beach Bums and Buddies
This year, NRDC strengthened its criteria for the annual Beach Buddy award. The award still requires communities to monitor beach water regularly, close beaches or notify the public when standards are exceeded, and use EPA's health standards. But now NRDC is recognizing authorities that also have taken significant steps to reduce beach pollution over the previous year. Examples include improving sewage or stormwater treatment, or undertaking sweeping reforms that will result in major beachwater improvements in the near future.

NRDC's Beach Buddies this year are: Branford, Connecticut; Key West, Florida; Salem, Massachusetts; and the Los Angeles County and San Diego County regional water quality boards.

"We felt it was time to take the Beach Buddy award a step further by singling out those authorities that are taking steps to pinpoint the source of pollution and reduce it," said report author Mark Dorfman. "It's by no means a comprehensive list and we expect that there are other good examples out there." For details, click here (PDF file, 48 k)

NRDC also is releasing its list of Beach Bums -- those communities that do not monitor beach water for swimmer safety, do not regularly notify the public if health standards are exceeded, do not use EPA's recommended health standards, and have known pollution sources affecting their beaches. In addition to these 70 communities, NRDC also named two states, Oregon and Louisiana, Beach Bums because neither has a regular monitoring or public-notification program. For details, click here (PDF file, 108 k)

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 2002

Additional Downloadable Material for the Press
Questions and answers about this year's report in PDF format, 151k.