U.S. Beach Closings at Record High for Second Year in a Row Despite Drought, According to Annual NRDC Beach Quality Report

WASHINGTON (August 3, 2000) - Widespread drought meant fewer pollution problems at our nation’s beaches in 1999 than in 1998, but beach closings and advisories continued to run at record highs, according to the 10th annual beach report by NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council). The 6,160 closings and advisories last year were nearly 50 percent higher than those in 1997, indicating that increased monitoring continues to reveal serious water pollution at our nation’s coastal, bay and Great Lakes beaches.

"In 1998 we found an unusually high number of closings and advisories from pollution caused by the El Niño storms in Southern California," explained Sarah Chasis, an NRDC senior attorney and project director of the beach report. "In 1999, conversely, most of our coastal areas suffered from drought, so there were somewhat fewer closings and advisories. But there’s no reason to celebrate. There were still more than 6,000 closings and advisories in 1999, and the 10-year trend is steady -- the number is going up."

Ms. Chasis attributed the overall rise over the last decade partly to better monitoring and greater participation in federal and NRDC surveys.

"The good news is we’re seeing a more comprehensive picture of beachwater quality than ever before," she said. "The bad news is that the growing number of advisories and closings indicates that too little is being done to prevent beach pollution, especially from sources such as stormwater and sewage."

More than two-thirds of the 1999 beach closings and advisories were due to monitoring that detected bacteria levels exceeding health standards. Elevated bacteria levels usually are due to sewage or polluted stormwater discharges. The other closings and advisories primarily occurred in response to known pollution events, such as sewage treatment plant failures, or in response to heavy rains that carry pollution into swimming waters. In many cases, the source of elevated bacteria levels was unknown, highlighting the need for better management of sewage collection networks, treatment systems and other potential sources of pollution.

"We need strong regulations and vigorous enforcement to keep bacteria from raw sewage and contaminated stormwater out of our waters," said Nancy Stoner, director of NRDC’s Water Project.

Untreated sewage continues to contaminate popular beaches, according to the report. Contamination from sewage spills, storm drains, runoff or leaking septic systems were reported in 1999 and the first seven months of this year in Cape May County, New Jersey; the Keys, Miami and Pensacola Beach in Florida; San Diego; and St. Croix. The high organic content in sewage can spur massive blooms of microscopic organisms that can cause illness through skin contact or ingestion. Eleven Gulf Coast beaches in Florida’s Okaloosa County were closed from 13 to 22 weeks due to red tide algal blooms, and 10 Atlantic Ocean beaches in Florida’s Duval County (which includes Jacksonville) were closed for one month due to algal blooms.

Report Spurs Beach Monitoring Strides
Over the last 10 years, NRDC’s "Testing the Waters" report has provided the impetus to improve monitoring programs. Since the first report, in 1991, monitoring programs have been initiated or expanded at beaches in at least nine states, and at least 27 local agencies in eight states have adopted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommended health standards for swimmer safety. Two states, California and Florida, have passed "beach bills" that mandate regular beach monitoring and adequate health standards. A similar bill is pending in Massachusetts, while a federal beach bill passed in the House of Representatives and is pending in the Senate.

Last year President Clinton directed the Interior Department to improve beachwater quality monitoring to "enhance the public’s right to know that beaches are safe for their families," and to work with EPA to strengthen water quality standards nationwide. EPA also established its Beaches Environmental Assessment, Closure and Health (BEACH) program, which sets a timetable for mandatory uniform standards for measuring bacterial contamination of fresh and marine waters, and establishes initiatives to improve research methodologies.

In May 1999, the president also promised new federal rules to eliminate raw sewage discharges, but the Office of Management and Budget is holding them up. "We call on the president to live up to his commitment to protect the public from bacteria-laden raw sewage discharges," said Ms. Stoner. "It is not the time for OMB to play politics with the health of Americans."

Beach Bums and Buddies
Effective monitoring and public notification problems at our nation’s beaches are an important first step in stemming beachwater pollution. NRDC annually releases a list of Beach Bums -- those beaches (or entire states) lacking regular monitoring and proper public notification programs, and Beach Buddies -- beaches or states that monitor regularly, utilize EPA’s recommended health standards, and notify the public when those standards are exceeded.

"The example of Mississippi shows the importance of monitoring and public notification," said Mark Dorfman, the author of this year’s report. "The state made NRDC’s Beach Bum list last year, before it took any steps to notify the public when there was a health risk to beachgoers. In 1999, for the first time, Mississippi closed beaches for nine days because of sewage contamination. That meant that swimmers who might have gotten sick were protected because the state warned them to stay out of the water."

NRDC’s annual beach report alerts vacationers about water quality problems. The prospect of declining tourism, in turn, is an incentive for states and local beaches to adopt better practices. In 1999, two states NRDC previously identified as Beach Bums -- Georgia and Alabama -- began to implement beachwater monitoring programs.

Louisiana and Oregon, however, still lack any regular monitoring of beachwater for swimmer safety. Except for one local agency, Washington state has no regular monitoring for swimmer safety. Alabama, Puerto Rico and Texas have monitoring programs for part or all of their beaches, but no public notification procedures.

Only 11 states comprehensively monitor most or all of their beaches and notify the public. They are California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

1999 Beach Bums: Making this year’s Beach Bum list are Louisiana, Oregon, Texas and Washington. These states either have no regular monitoring of ocean or bay beachwater for swimmer safety, or, despite some monitoring, have inadequate closure or public notification procedures to protect the public when health standards are exceeded.

1999 Beach Buddies: This year, NRDC strengthened its criteria for Beach Buddy status. Now Beach Buddies must: monitor their beachwater at least once a week; use EPA’s recommended bacteria standard; always close or issue an advisory 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 the East Haven Town Beach in East Haven, Connecticut; North Beach and Oceanside at the Assateague Island National Seashore in Maryland; Revere Beach in Revere, Massachusetts; and Short Beach in Winthrop, Massachusetts.

NRDC supports the passage of beach legislation that will ensure nationally consistent and protective health standards for beachwater in conjunction with comprehensive monitoring and public notification programs. NRDC also supports the EPA BEACH program, although NRDC notes that the program is voluntary and believes it should be mandatory. Finally, NRDC urges congressional support funding and prompt implementation of the administration’s Clean Water Action Plan.

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 400,000 members nationwide, served from offices in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Additional Downloadable Materials for the Press
Testing the Waters 2000: Fact Sheet in Microsoft Word format, 85k
Testing the Waters 2000: Questions & Answers in Microsoft Word format, 88k
1999 Beach Closings and Monitoring Programs Map in Acrobat format (pdf, 41K)
1999 Beach Bums and Beach Buddies List in Acrobat format (pdf, 33K)

Related NRDC Webpages
Beachgoers' Guide
Report: Testing the Waters 2000