Closures and Advisories Jump 51 Percent at Nation's Beaches

Problems Likely Will Worsen Under Current Federal Policies, Says NRDC

WASHINGTON (August 5, 2004) - It's become a familiar refrain every summer: "Beach closings and advisories are up … again." But this year, it's even worse. NRDC's (Natural Resources Defense Council) annual beach report, released today, found more closing and advisory days in 2003 than at any other time in the 14 years the organization has been monitoring them. "Testing the Waters: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches" reports there were more than 18,000 days of closings and advisories at ocean and Great Lakes beaches last year -- an increase of 51 percent from 2002. (For the complete report, click here.)

"Millions of Americans go to the beach every summer to enjoy the sun, the sand, and the surf," said Nancy Stoner, director of NRDC's Clean Water Project. "Too often they have to stay out of the water or risk getting sick."

The annual trend of higher numbers of closing and advisory days is due to a combination of better monitoring of beachwater quality -- thanks in part to increased federal funding triggered by the BEACH (Beaches Environmental Assessment, Closure and Health) Act of 2000 -- and the failure of most municipalities to identify and control sources of beachwater pollution. 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 88 percent of the closing and advisory days in 2003.

The report found that the number of beach closing and advisory days jumped from 12,078 days in 2002 to 18,284 days in 2003, an increase of 6,206 days. Florida alone accounted for more than a third of the increase partly due to the fact that the state increased monitoring frequency and adopted the Environmental Protection Agency's health standards for the first full year. The states with the largest percentage jump in closing and advisory days between 2002 and 2003 were Delaware (+82 percent), Florida (+128 percent), Mississippi (+337 percent), New Jersey (+318 percent), New York (+138 percent), Rhode Island (+196 percent) and South Carolina (+162 percent). North Carolina, meanwhile, went from no closing and advisory days in 2002 to 567 in 2003.

One of the report's most disturbing findings is that local authorities did not know the sources of pollution causing or contributing to 68 percent of the closing and advisory days last year -- the highest rate of "unknown sources" in the 14 years NRDC has been issuing the survey.

The high rate of unknown sources means that authorities are not doing enough to identify the specific cause of the elevated bacteria level that prompted the closing, said Stoner. "We know that the high bacteria levels that cause most closings and advisories come from two sources -- inadequately treated sewage and contaminated stormwater," she said. "We have a major water system breakdown across the country, and local, state and federal authorities need to wake up and fix it." She said that authorities should focus on preventing raw sewage discharges, reducing contaminated stormwater runoff, and setting strong public health standards for bacteria, viruses, parasites and other pollutants.

Beach Buddies and Beach Bums

NRDC today saluted four "Beach Buddies." Beach Buddies monitor beachwater regularly, close beaches or notify the public when at least one of EPA's health standards is exceeded, and take significant steps to reduce pollution, such as improving sewage or stormwater treatment, limiting coastal development, and preserving coastal wetlands. This year's Beach Buddies are:

  • Newport Beach, California;

  • Willard Beach in South Portland, Maine;

  • Ocean City, Maryland; and

  • Warren Town Beach, Rhode Island.

"NRDC applauds these communities for protecting beachgoers not only by monitoring and closing beaches when the water is not safe, but also by reducing the sources of beachwater pollution," said Mark Dorfman, the author of the NRDC report.

NRDC also released its annual list of "Beach Bums." Beach Bums are aware that stormwater and sewage spoil their beaches but do not regularly monitor beachwater for swimmer safety or notify the public if health standards are exceeded. This year's Beach Bums are:

  • Bar Harbor, Maine;

  • Kennebunkport, Maine;

  • St. Lawrence County, New York (all 10 beaches); and

  • Frenchman's Bar in Vancouver, Washington.

St. Lawrence County's beaches and Frenchman's Bar were Beach Bums last year as well.

Administration Weakens Beach Pollution Protections

The current administration began working to undermine Clean Water Act protections for beachwater the first day it took office and continues to issue new policies that undermine Clean Water Act programs that help keep beachwater clean and safe for swimming. The administration also has declined to protect many wetlands and other waters that filter beachwater sources, rolled back treatment requirements for sewage, allowed contaminated stormwater from new development to pollute rivers, slashed federal funding for clean water programs, and delayed and derailed state efforts to clean up polluted waterways. "As surely as pollution flows downhill, this administration's policies will increase beach closures, contaminate coastal waters, and make swimmers sick," said Stoner.

Sewage is one of the biggest sources of coastal and estuarine water pollution in the country. For more than three years, the Environmental Protection Agency has held up rules that would minimize raw sewage discharges and require sewer systems to monitor and detect sewer overflows before they reach the beach. Instead of issuing a rule that would protect beachgoers, the EPA is now promoting a policy that would allow sewer operators to discharge inadequately treated sewage during heavy rains. "Inadequately treated sewage can cause vomiting and diarrhea for healthy people, but can be life-threatening for young children and the elderly," said Stoner. "The EPA's policy is irresponsible."

Federal Policies that Would Exacerbate the Problem

As detailed in NRDC's annual report "Testing the Waters: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches," there are several pending choices before federal regulators that could exacerbate beachwater pollution. Below is a roundup of policies that are the worst offenders.

Slashing Funding for Clean Water: This year's White House budget proposal includes dramatic cuts in Clean Water Act funding. Specifically, the White House's budget reduced the Clean Water State Revolving Fund by more than a third (about $500 million) below last year's funding level, the largest cutback of any environmental program. On average, that amounts to more than a $1 million cut for every congressional district. Congress should restore the funding and the president should approve it.

Thirty years ago the federal government funded 20 percent of the costs of maintaining a clean water infrastructure across the country. Today the federal government funds a mere 5 percent of these costs. U.S. water infrastructure is antiquated; many pipes are 50 to 100 years old. In cities and towns across the nation, aging and failing water infrastructure systems pose serious threats to public health, the environment and the economy. Adequate funding for water infrastructure programs is essential to protect our nation's rivers and lakes and ensure Americans have clean and safe water.

Lowering Sewage Treatment Standards: If an administration proposal currently pending with the Environmental Protection Agency becomes official policy, inadequately treated sewage would routinely flow into waterways when it rains. The policy would make it lawful for water authorities to dilute sewage with stormwater instead of fully treating it when it rains as a way to meet federal discharge standards. Experts estimate that this policy would make it a thousand times more likely people swimming near sewer discharge pipes would get sick. (For more information, click here.) The administration should withdrawal this proposal.

Shelving Rules to Control Raw Sewage Discharges: Immediately upon taking office, the Bush administration announced it was shelving an EPA regulatory proposal to control raw sewage discharges and require public notification when sewer overflows occur. This proposed sanitary sewer overflow rule would have kept raw sewage discharges out of America's streets, waterways and basements and required sewer operators to notify local officials or the public when sewage overflows threaten public health. The result of the administration's refusal to put this rule in place is ongoing raw sewage discharges - often without any public warning - that increase the public's exposure to sewage. According to the EPA, more than a million people get sick every year from swimming in raw sewage from sanitary sewer overflows. (For more information, see a February 2004 report by NRDC and the Environmental Integrity Project, "Swimming in Sewage.") The EPA should adopt this common sense proposal to protect the public from swimming in raw sewage.

Dropping Stormwater Requirements for Developers: Pollution from runoff from paved surfaces, such as parking lots, highways and rooftops, is the largest and fastest growing source of water pollution in coastal waters. The U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy found that over the last 30 years, more than 19 million homes have been built in coastal areas. Regardless, EPA political appointees and the White House recently rejected recommendations by EPA stormwater experts to set minimum standards to control pollution from construction and development. As a result, we can expect more beach closings, waterborne disease, flooding, fish kills, and contaminated drinking water supplies. The White House should reverse its position on this important issue. (For more information, click here.)

Eliminating Protection for Headwaters, Wetlands and Streams: In January 2003, the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued a "guidance" directing the two agencies' field staff to abandon Clean Water Act protection for non-tidal wetlands, small streams, closed basins and other "isolated waters," despite the fact that the law requires their protection to maintain water quality in downstream lakes, rivers and coastal waters. Corporate polluters can dump toxic waste, animal waste, oil or chemicals into these unprotected wetlands and streams. They also can dredge or fill them without a permit and without any public input. The Army Corp of Engineers should withdraw this guidance and enforce the Clean Water Act to protect all U.S. waters.