Beach closings and advisories soar in 2000

Beach closings and advisories soared last year, according to NRDC's eleventh annual beach report.

Increased monitoring and reporting reveals widespread pollution at U.S beaches

August 14, 2001 — Beach closings and advisories soared last year, according to NRDC's eleventh annual beach report.

Across the country, 11,270 closings and advisories were issued in 2000, nearly double the previous year's number. What caused this surge? Part of the explanation lies in the heavy rainfall that some states experienced. But most of the rise results from increased monitoring, better testing standards for bacteria and other pathogens and more thorough reporting.

In other words, the country's testing policies and practices are finally beginning to reveal the true extent of water pollution at our nation's beaches. As monitoring improves and expands — as it must do by 2004, under federal law — the numbers are likely to rise still higher.

The report uncovered another disturbing trend: more than half of the time, local authorities can't identify all the pollution sources that prompt them to close their beaches or issue advisories. In fact, the number of beaches reporting pollution problems from unknown sources jumped dramatically, from 40 percent in 1999 to 56 percent in 2000, underscoring the need for officials to take steps to identify and clean up pollution sources.

Improved monitoring in many coastal areas

NRDC's annual watchdog report has sparked several improvements in beach water monitoring. For instance, it helped spur the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to create the BEACH Program, designed to encourage states to monitor beach water quality and notify the public about possible health risks from pollution. Moreover, public attention generated by NRDC's annual report and list of "beach bums" and "beach buddies" has prompted several states and local beaches to adopt better practices. Myrtle Beach, South Carolina and Georgia, for example, labeled by NRDC as beach bums in the past, have responded by initiating monitoring and notification programs. Mississippi, also previously labeled a beach bum, closed beaches for 15 days in 2000 because of sewage contamination, protecting swimmers who might otherwise have become sick. Last year, Texas, another 1999 beach bum, began monitoring public beaches on the Gulf Coast.

Since NRDC's first beach report, in 1991, eleven states have begun or expanded monitoring programs. Last year, seven states reported increasing the number of sites they monitored. Three states, California, Florida, and Massachusetts, have passed laws calling for regular beach monitoring and adequate health standards. And the number of state agencies adopting at least one of the EPA's recommended health standards for swimmer safety increased from 51 in 1999 to 77 in 2000.

Inconsistent policies and practices

But even as more states monitor their beaches, the country does not yet have a uniform, regular program of monitoring in place. In October 2000, Congress took a big step toward remedying this problem, by passing a law that will ensure consistent national health standards for beach water in conjunction with comprehensive monitoring and public notification programs, to be in place by 2004. The legislation also authorizes $30 million each year to help coastal states develop and implement these programs, but it remains to be seen whether Congress will appropriate the full amount each year (for fiscal year 2002, President Bush requested only $2 million for this program, which the House of Representatives raised to $10 million). In addition, the standards themselves have not yet been set, although the EPA has begun the process of developing them. (To hear from NRDC in the future regarding opportunities to weigh in on these decisions, sign up to receive our action bulletin.)

In the meantime, monitoring remains inconsistent. Oregon doesn't regularly monitor beach water for swimmer safety, for instance. Louisiana monitors a few beaches, but has no statewide monitoring program. Washington also lacks a formal statewide program — the state leaves it to individual communities to voluntarily monitor their local beaches.

In fact, only eleven states and Guam regularly monitor most or all of their beaches at least once a week and notify the public. Even states that regularly test beach water may not shut down beaches when standards are exceeded. For example, some towns and counties in Connecticut, Florida, Maine, Michigan, New York, Virginia and Wisconsin do not always close beaches when the standards are violated. In Hawaii and Rhode Island, most towns and counties only sometimes issue advisories and closings when standards are exceeded.

On top of this, the standards used for testing water quality also vary across the country. Of the 130 agencies with marine water standards, only 32 in eight states and Guam (or about one-quarter of them) have adopted both of the EPA's recommended bacteria standards for swimmer safety.

Keeping water safe by cleaning up pollution monitoring is essential, of course, but in the end, swimmers won't be adequately protected unless the sources of pollution are cleaned up. Controls on all sources of beach water pollution should be tightened — especially on sewage overflows, polluted runoff and urban stormwater, the principal causes of closures and advisories.

Individuals can also help clean up beach pollution. Simple measures such as conserving water, redirecting runoff from roofs and driveways to lawns and gardens, using natural fertilizers such as compost for gardens, maintaining septic systems and properly disposing of household toxics, used motor oil and boating wastes can reduce the amount of pollution that enters coastal waters.

Beach Buddies and Beach Bums

Each year, NRDC lists "beach bums," beaches or entire states that lack regular monitoring and proper public notification, and "beach buddies," beaches or states that follow adequate monitoring and notification policies.

2000 Beach Buddies

These beaches, all in Massachusetts and Connecticut, monitor their beach water at least once a week, use the EPA's recommended bacteria standard, always close or issue an advisory if the EPA standard is exceeded and had no closings or advisories in 2000.

* Brewster Beach, Barnstable County, Massachusetts

* East Haven Town Beach, New Haven County, Connecticut

* Good Harbor Creek Beach, Gloucester, Essex County, Massachusetts

* Hammonasset Beach State Park, New Haven County, Connecticut

* Niles Beach, Gloucester, Essex County, Massachusetts

* Pavillion Beach, Gloucester, Essex County, Massachusetts

* Town Beach in Old Saybrook, Middlesex County, Connecticut

* Waterford Town Beach, New London County, Connecticut

2000 Beach Bums

These states have no regular monitoring and public notification program. Both states were 1999 beach bums as well and failed to take action to get off the list.

* Louisiana, no regular monitoring, no public notification

* Oregon, no regular monitoring, no public notification

Based on TESTING THE WATERS 2001: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches, an August 2001 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council. To read the full report, visit http://www.nrdc.org/water/oceans/ttw/titinx.asp.

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