NRDC’s 20th Annual Beach Report: Gulf Coast Beach Warnings Skyrocket Due to Oil and Pollution Persists in Waves Nationwide

Report Includes Special Section on Oil on Gulf’s Shores and 5-Star Rating Guide for 200 Popular U.S. Beaches

WASHINGTON, D.C. (July 28, 2010) – Pollution continues to contaminate the water at America’s beaches, causing 18,682 closing and advisory days in 2009, while this year the oil disaster has already led to 2,239 days of beach closing, advisories, and notices in the Gulf region, according to the 20th annual beachwater quality report released today by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

“From stomach-turning pathogens to dangerous oil slicks – America’s beaches continue to suffer from pollution that can make people sick, harm marine life and destroy coastal economies,” said NRDC Water Program Director David Beckman. “And as the disaster of unprecedented scale continues in the Gulf, we must clean up the mess, stop it from happening again, and make sure the communities bearing the brunt are not forgotten.”

In its 20th year, NRDC’s annual report – Testing the Waters: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches – analyzes government data on beachwater testing results from 2009 at more than 3,000 beaches nationwide, and provides a 5-star rating chart for 200 of the nation’s most popular beaches.The report confirms that last year, our nation’s beachwater continued to suffer from serious contamination – including human and animal waste – and a concerted effort to control future pollution is required.

“Sewage and runoff pollution in our beachwater is preventable,” said Jon Devine, senior NRDC water attorney. “With investment in cost-effective, smarter water practices that are available today, communities can tackle the most common sources of pollution lurking in the waves.”

NRDC’s report issued 5-star ratings for 200 of the most popular U.S. beaches, based on indicators of beachwater quality, monitoring frequency, and public notification of contamination. The highest rated (5-star) beaches last year were found in Minnesota (Lafayette Community Club Beach and Franklin Park at 13th Street on Park Point), New Hampshire (Hampton Beach State Park and Wallis Sands Beach at Wallis Road), California (Bolsa Chica State Beach, Huntington City Beach at the Beach Hut, Newport Beach, Salt Creek Beach at Dana Strands, and portions of Cardiff State Beach and Laguna Beach) and Alabama (Gulf Shores Public Beach). Unfortunately, as of July 27, 5-star Gulf Shores Public Beach in Alabama has been closed this year for 53 days due to the oil spill.

The lowest rated (1-star) of the most popular beaches last year were found in Florida (Ben T. Davis North, Dixie Belle Beach, Monument Beach, Navarre Park, Quietwater Beach, Simmons Park and Treasure Island Beach), Maine (Old Orchard Beach, Long Sands Beach and Short Sands Beach), Mississippi (Courthouse Road Beach, Edgewater Beach and Front Beach), North Carolina (one section of Nags Head), New York (Hamlin Beach State Park, Orchard Beach, Robert Moses State Park Beach, and sections of Rockaway Beach and Coney Island), Rhode Island (Narragansett Town Beach), and South Carolina (Myrtle Beach, South Carolina State Park and Campground, Springmaid Beach and Surfside Beach).

This year the report also includes a special section dedicated to oil-related beach closures, advisories, and notices in the Gulf region this summer.


As oil washes ashore, closures, advisories, and notices have been issued at many Gulf beaches – nearly 10 times as many closing and advisory days as were issued at these beaches for any reason by this time last year. So far this year, there have been a total of 2,239 beach closing, advisories, and notices in the Gulf region as a result of the oil disaster. Analysis of only those Gulf beaches that are regularly tested for water quality reveals a total of 1,972 days of closings, advisories, and notices related to the oil spill compared to 237 closing and advisory days at those beaches this time last year for any reason.

As of July 27, 16 of the 180 beaches in western Florida that are regularly tested for water quality have been under advisory or notice due to oil, resulting in a total of 442 days of advisories/notices, compared to no advisory days last year at this time for any reason. In Louisiana, 11 of the 28 monitored beach segments have been closed this year, with 793 days of closings compared to 180 advisory days this time last year. In Alabama, six of the 25 monitored beach segments have been under advisory due to oil, with 307 days of advisories, compared to no advisory days at this time last year. In Mississippi, 16 of 20 monitored beach segments have been under advisory for oil, with 430 days of advisories compared to 57 advisory days at this time last year. There have been no official closures or advisories due to the spill in Texas as of July 27, 2010. 

NRDC is maintaining a frequently updated map of current oil spill beach closures, advisories, and notices, which can be accessed here:

Oil contains a mixture of toxic chemicals and heavy metals like mercury, arsenic and lead that can cause skin and respiratory irritation, reproductive and neurological harm, as well as cancer if exposure is long-term. At the beach, breathing in sea spray from dispersed oil or oil vapors can cause headaches, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, eye and throat irritation. Skin contact can cause rashes, irritation and folliculitis from clogged pores. Beachgoers should avoid all areas where oil can be seen or smelled. This is particularly true for children, pregnant women, people with compromised immune systems, and people with asthma or other respiratory diseases.

The oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico has caused tremendous damage not only to the environment and communities of the region, but also their economies. This includes the lucrative tourism and recreation industries in Gulf states, which generated a combined $26.5 billion in 2004 alone.


A disaster like this should never happen again. Measures should be taken to help mitigate the damage from this spill and avoid future spills, including permanently stopping the leak, suspending all new offshore drilling activity until we find out what happened, and moving to clean energy sources that can’t spill or run out. Additionally, BP must be forced pay for the cleanup and costs in full – including fully compensating coastal communities for the damage to their economies.


This year’s report found that 7 percent of beachwater samples nationwide in 2009 violated health standards, showing no improvement from the previous two years. The region with the most contaminated beachwater in 2009 was the Great Lakes, where 13 percent of beachwater samples violated public health standards. For the past five years, the Great Lakes region has tested the dirtiest, while the Southeast and Delmarva Peninsula proved cleaner than other regions. Individual states with the most reported contamination in 2009 were Louisiana (25 percent), Rhode Island (20 percent), and Illinois (16 percent). Those with the least contamination last year were New Hampshire (1 percent), Delaware (2 percent), and Oregon (2 percent).

Under the federal BEACH Act, states regularly test their beachwater for bacteria found in human and animal waste. These bacteria indicate the presence of pathogens. When beach managers determine that water contamination exceeds health standards – or in some cases when a state suspects levels would exceed standards, such as after heavy rain – they notify the public through beach closures or advisories. While the report found an overall 8 percent decrease in closing and advisory days at beaches nationwide from 2008, the change does not necessarily signal permanent improvement in beachwater quality. Rather, the overall decrease likely reflects decreased funding for water contamination monitoring in Southern California, as well as dry conditions in Hawaii and the four U.S. territories (Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands). In fact, many regions of the country actually saw sharp increases – including most of the East Coast and the entire Gulf Coast, likely at least in part as a result of increased precipitation from the previous year. 

In 2009, stormwater runoff was the primary known source of pollution at beaches nationwide, consistent with past years. The report indicates polluted runoff continues to be a serious problem that has not been addressed. By using a wealth of available, smart water solutions on land – collectively called “green infrastructure” – we can naturally control and treat stormwater pollution, as well as prevent sewage overflows, to keep waste from reaching the beach. Green infrastructure refers to a variety of practices – such as green roofs, permeable pavement, roadside plantings and rain barrels – that stop rainwater where it falls and either store it for later use or allow it to soak back into the ground.

“Relying on dry weather to keep our beachwater clean is not a long-term public health protection strategy – when the rains return, so will the pollution,” said Beckman. “Green infrastructure techniques on land can make a real difference in the water – and they’re often the cheapest and most effective way to improve beachwater quality. From green roofs to permeable pavement and roadside plantings, there’s a whole host of ways to not only prevent runoff pollution and sewage overflows from the start – but to beautify neighborhoods, boost economies and support American jobs at the same time.”

Beachwater pollution nationwide causes a range of waterborne illnesses in swimmers including stomach flu, skin rashes, pinkeye, ear, nose and throat problems, dysentery, hepatitis, respiratory ailments, neurological disorders and other serious health problems. For senior citizens, small children and people with weak immune systems, the results can be fatal. The incidence of infections has been steadily growing over the past several decades, and with coastal populations growing we can expect this upward trend to continue until the pollution sources are addressed.


Since NRDC released its first Testing the Waters report, there have been significant improvements in beachwater testing and reporting. In 1991, of the ten states included in NRDC’s first edition of Testing the Waters, only Delaware, Maine, New Jersey and Rhode Island reported weekly monitoring of bacteria at some of their beaches. Due in large part to NRDC advocacy, nearly 3,000 coastal beaches, representing beaches in all 30 coastal states, are now monitoring at least weekly, if not more. 

Also, twenty years ago, water quality monitoring records were not necessarily kept, even for states that conducted monitoring.  Today, detailed information about beachwater quality is in most cases available online. States are also now applying more consistent water quality standards to beach closure and advisory decisions, and they are tying beach status more clearly to bacteria levels – a shift that provides better protection of public health. 


There are several things the government and citizens can do to create healthier summers at the beach:

Boosting green infrastructure in coastal communities can prevent stormwater runoff and sewage overflows from the start. These solutions not only clean up waterways, they literally green communities, cool and cleanse the air, reduce asthma and heat-related illnesses, save on heating and cooling energy costs, and generate landscaping and construction jobs. A bill recently introduced in Congress, the Green Infrastructure for Clean Water Act (H.R. 4202/S. 3561), aims to make green infrastructure and low impact development techniques a national priority.

Simple steps in your everyday life can also make a difference in reducing beachwater pollution. This includes conserving water, redirecting drainage pipes toward gardens or vegetation, maintaining septic systems, and properly disposing of animal waste, litter, toxic household products, and used motor oil.

Better testing and identification of contamination sources can help protect public health and address the causes. The Clean Coastal Environment and Public Health Act (H.R. 2093/S. 878), pending in Congress would enable better identification of pollution sources – which are often not investigated and therefore unknown – so they can be addressed. The bill would also require EPA to adopt faster testing methods to enable officials to issue prompter closings and advisories in the event of contamination. This would allow people to find out if it’s safe to swim before they get in, not after – as is often the case today with slower testing methods.

By cutting global warming pollution we can help avoid greater beachwater pollution in the future. The U.S. House of Representatives has already approved, and we now look to the Senate to pass, climate and clean energy legislation that would do just that, as well as help us transition to clean energy, and create millions of jobs at the same time. Since global warming is expected to increase pathogens in the water and stormwater runoff – as a result of increased floods and storms – passing legislation to minimize these impacts can help avoid beach pollution.