New Monitoring Uncovers Dangerous Bacteria in More Places, More Often;
Better Pollution Prevention Needed to Get Swimmers Back in the Water

WASHINGTON (July 28, 2005) -- Beach closings due to hazardous bacterial contamination are on the rise nationwide, according to an annual report released today by the Natural Resources Defense Council. The report tallied nearly 20,000 closing and health advisory days across the country in 2004, the most since NRDC began tracking the problem 15 years ago. One reason, the group says, is that improved monitoring spurred by previous reports is now uncovering the true extent of the pollution problem.

"Instead of closing our beaches, let's clean up the water," said Nancy Stoner, director of NRDC's Clean Water Project. "Authorities have gotten better at finding the problems. Now they need to stop the pollution at its source by repairing and replacing leaky sewage and septic systems, and cleaning up contaminated runoff."

The report, "Testing the Waters," which covers ocean, bay and Great Lakes beaches, is available online here. (Another national organization, Surfrider Foundation, released its 2005 "State of the Beach" report today, which provides information on beach ecology, access, erosion and water quality, including material from NRDC's report and other sources. The report is available here.)

States with the biggest jump in closing and advisory days compared with 2003 were Texas (1,074 percent), Washington (700 percent), Maryland (405 percent), Minnesota (333 percent), Michigan (174 percent), New York (117 percent) and Illinois (102 percent). Hawaii went from no closing or advisory days in 2003 to 1,169 in 2004; Maine went from none in 2003 to 56 in 2004. Nationally the number jumped 9 percent, from 18,224 days in 2003 to 19,950 days in 2004.

"This is a nationwide problem that demands a nationwide solution," said Stoner. "We need stronger enforcement for those who aren't doing their share, and we need more federal help for local communities to control runoff and update their aging sewage systems. Just this week, Congress cut the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, the main federal support for water infrastructure. We're going backward." (For more information on the state revolving fund's status, click here.)

Eighty-five percent of the closing and advisory days were prompted by dangerously high bacteria levels, indicating the presence of human or animal waste. The main culprits are improperly treated sewage and bacteria-contaminated stormwater runoff. The bacteria cause a wide range of diseases, including gastroenteritis; dysentery; hepatitis; ear, nose and throat problems; and respiratory ailments. Consequences are worse for children, the elderly, pregnant women, and anyone with a weakened immune system.

Polluted beachwater not only poses a threat to public health, it can hurt local businesses. Ocean-related economic activity alone contributed more than $200 billion to the U.S. economy in 2000, and coastal tourism and recreation are two of the fastest growing businesses in the country, according to the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy. But U.S. "beachanomics" would be even more robust if communities were not forced to close their beaches because of pollution. For example, NRDC's study cited a report that estimated that closing a Lake Michigan beach could result in losses of as much as $37,000 per day.

Reasons for the jump in closings and advisories last year include:

  • the continuing failure of most municipalities to identify and clean up pollution sources;

  • more frequent monitoring, prompted at least in part by earlier NRDC reports;

  • heavier than average rainfall in some states, which flushed more pollution into local waterways;

  • implementation of the federal Beaches Environmental Assessment, Closure and Health (BEACH) Act, which passed in 2000 and went into effect in early 2004. The law requires all coastal and Great Lakes states and U.S. territories to adopt the Environmental Protection Agency's bacterial standards, and provides grants for monitoring and public notification programs, and requires the EPA to make beachwater quality data easily accessible.

Beach Buddies and Beach Bums

NRDC's report identifies the best and worst performers when it comes to protecting beachgoers from contaminated water. NRDC named its annual Beach Buddies-jurisdictions that monitor beachwater quality 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. This year's Beach Buddies are:

  • the city of Los Angeles;

  • Scarborough State Beach, Rhode Island (between Narragansett and Point Judith); and

  • Door County, Wisconsin (northeast of Green Bay).

The annual list of Beach Bums-communities that do not monitor pollution and warn the public when beachwater is unsafe, or fail to control sources of pollution-include:

  • Los Angeles County and 44 cities in the county, including Beverly Hills, Claremont, Pomona and Whittier (click here for the complete list);

  • Van Buren County, Michigan (west of Kalamazoo on Lake Michigan); and

  • Atlantic Beach, North Carolina (south of Morehead City).

"These two groups represent the best and worst in water quality and health safeguards for beachgoers," said Mark Dorfman, the author of the NRDC report. "They are case studies in what, and what not, to do to protect the 180 million Americans who come out to enjoy the beaches each year."

NRDC Recommendations

The report calls on Congress to fully fund the BEACH Act and the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, the principal source of federal support for water infrastructure. The report also urges the Environmental Protection Agency to tighten controls on sewer overflows and stormwater discharges, ensure that states and localities monitor water quality and notify the public when it does not meet bacterial standards, and set standards to protect the public from waterborne pathogens.

At the state and local level, NRDC recommends governments adopt rigorous monitoring and beach closure programs, identify pollution sources, and get to work cleaning them up. In addition, authorities should issue advisories when heavy rainfall causes bacteria levels to jump, and when sewer overflows or other similar problems jeopardize beachwater safety.

Citizens also can do a number of things to improve beachwater quality, including capturing runoff from roofs and driveways; maintaining septic systems; picking up pet waste; avoiding chemical fertilizers and pesticides on lawns and gardens; and supporting legislation and funding to keep beachwater clean, fix aging sewer systems, and protect wetlands and coastal vegetation.