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Beach Closures and Advisories Second Highest in a Decade

The number of beach closures and advisories was high again last year, reaching near record levels for the past decade, according to the 13th annual beach water quality report from NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council).

This year, "Testing the Waters: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches" cites more than 12,000 closures and advisories caused by pollution at ocean, bay, Great Lakes, and other freshwater beaches across the country. Despite the fact California and East Coast droughts in 2002 reduced pollution-causing runoff, the totals were the second highest in 13 years.

"Too much of the water at too many beaches is still too polluted with sewage and runoff," said Nancy Stoner, director of NRDC’s Clean Water Project. "That means millions of American families have their beach vacations ruined when they can’t go in the water. Worse yet, officials often don’t warn parents when it’s unsafe for their children to swim."

According to NRDC, the general trend of more closures and advisories is due in part to better beach water monitoring. Unfortunately, better monitoring has found that pollution from sewage spills and urban, suburban and agricultural runoff is contaminating our beaches with disease-causing bacteria and other pathogens. High bacteria levels, indicating the presence of human or animal waste, prompted 87 percent of the closures and advisories in 2002.

Similarly disturbing, local authorities were unable to attribute a source for the beach water contamination violating health or safety standards for 62 percent of closings and advisories last year (7,505 of 12,184) — the the highest rate of "unknown sources" since NRDC first issued the report in 1991.

Beach Bums and Buddies

The report named city and regional authorities trying to stem the flow of beach water pollution "Beach Buddies." As in past years, Beach Buddies monitor beach water regularly, close beaches or notify the public when standards are exceeded, and use the Environmental Protection Agency’s health standards as guidelines. But now NRDC recognizes only those communities that also have taken significant steps to reduce beach pollution by, for example, improving sewage or storm water treatment, limiting coastal development, or preserving coastal wetlands.

NRDC’s Beach Buddies this year are:

* Encinitas, California
* Milford, Connecticut
* Quincy, Massachusetts; and
* Racine, Wisconsin.

"NRDC is saluting these communities because they protect beachgoers not only by monitoring and closing their beaches when the water is not safe, but also by reducing the sources of pollution," said report author Mark Dorfman.

NRDC also named 55 Beach Bums — those communities that do not regularly monitor beach water for swimmer safety or notify the public if health standards are exceeded and have known storm water or sewage sources that could pollute their water. These beaches included 19 in New York, 12 in Michigan, and 14 in Hawaii. Some of these beaches may have instituted monitoring and notification programs this year.

The most popular beaches among the Beach Bums were:

* Lake Nacimiento (near Paso Robles), California;
* Playa Flamenco in Puerto Rico; and
* Frenchman’s Bar in Clark County, Washington.

For the entire Beach Bum list, click here. (Adobe Acrobat Format)

Bush Administration Rolling Back Beach Pollution Protections

NRDC has seen progress over the last 13 years. At least 12 states have initiated or expanded monitoring programs since NRDC began its annual report, and over the next two years, states and localities will begin implementing federally funded programs that are currently under development under the 2000 BEACH Act, which encourages states to establish monitoring and public notification programs for beachwater quality. But now our beach water is facing another threat: the Bush administration.

From the first day it took office, the Bush administration has been rolling back programs that keep U.S. beach water clean and safe for swimming, charges NRDC. And now the administration is pursuing new policies that would leave many of the nation’s waterways completely unprotected, reduce treatment requirements for sewage, allow contaminated storm water from new development to pollute rivers, and delay and derail state efforts to clean up polluted waterways.

For example, for more than two years, the Bush administration has held up rules that would minimize raw sewage discharges and require sewer system operators to detect sewer overflows before they reach the beach. Instead of issuing a rule that would protect beachgoers, the Bush administration is promoting a policy that would allow sewer operators to discharge inadequately treated sewage into waterways whenever it rains.

Source: NRDC

Cliff Etzel
Cliff Etzel
Cliff is the former Freediving editor of He is now a freelance journalist and film-maker.