WASHINGTON, D.C. — Pollution from stormwater runoff and sewage overflows continue to plague America’s beaches, which saw the second-highest number of closing and advisory days in more than two decades last year, according to the 21st annual beachwater quality report released by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an international nonprofit environmental organization.
“America’s beaches have long suffered from pollution — the difference is now we know what to do about it,” said NRDC Senior Attorney Jon Devine. “By making our communities literally greener on land, we can make the water at the beach cleaner. In the years to come, there’s no reason we can’t reverse this dirty legacy.”
In its 21st year, NRDC’s annual report — Testing the Waters: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches — analyzes government data on beachwater testing results from 2010 at more than 3,000 beach testing locations nationwide. The report confirms that last year, the nation’s beachwater continued to suffer from serious contamination — including oil and human and animal waste — and a concerted effort to control future pollution is required.
“Clean beachwater is not only good for public health, it supports healthy coastal economies that generate billions of dollars and support millions of American jobs,” said David Beckman, director of the Water Program at NRDC. “By taking steps to stop the biggest sources of pollution in the waves, we can help keep trips to beach carefree, and support our lucrative tourism industries nationwide.”
The report also provides a five-star rating guide to 200 of the nation’s most popular beaches, evaluating them for water quality and best practices for testing and public notification. For the first time this year NRDC is awarding top performers “Superstar” status. NRDC also highlights the top 10 “Repeat Offender” beaches with persistently poor water quality year after year. Testing the Waters this year also includes a special section dedicated to oil-related beach closures, advisories, and notices in the Gulf of Mexico region since the BP oil spill last year.
NRDC is awarding “Superstar Beach” status to four U.S. beaches featured in its 5-star rating guide. These beaches not only received a 5-star rating this year, but also have perfect testing results for the past three years, indicating a history of very good water quality. Those beaches are:
• Delaware: Rehoboth Beach-Rehoboth Avenue Beach, in Sussex County
• Delaware: Dewey Beach, in Sussex County
• Minnesota: Park Point Lafayette Community Club Beach, in St. Louis County
• New Hampshire: Hampton Beach State Park in Rockingham County
NRDC’s star-criteria system awards up to five stars to each of the 200 popular beaches in its ratings guide. Stars are earned for exceeding health standards less than 5 percent of the time last year and during the last three years, and for the following best practices: testing more than once a week, notifying the public promptly when tests reveal bacteria levels exceeding health standards, and posting closings and advisories both online and at the beach.
Top 10 repeat offenders
During the last five years of this report, sections of 10 U.S. beaches have stood out as having persistent contamination problems, with water samples exceeding public health standards more than 25 percent of the time for each year from 2006 to 2010:
• California: Avalon Beach in Los Angeles County
• California: Cabrillo Beach Station in Los Angeles County
• California: Doheny State Beach in Orange County
• Florida: Keaton Beach in Taylor County
• Illinois: North Point Marina North Beach in Lake County
• New Jersey: Beachwood Beach West in Ocean County
• Ohio: Villa Angela State Park in Cuyahoga County
• Texas: Ropes Park in Nueces County
• Wisconsin: Eichelman beach in Kenosha County
• Wisconsin: South Shore Beach in Milwaukee
Due to their size, some of these beaches have multiple sections that are tested for water quality, and in some instances only certain sections of a beach qualified for the repeat offender list.
National findings in 2010
Closing and advisory days at America’s beaches spiked to the second-highest level in the 21 years since NRDC began compiling this report at 24,091 days, a 29-percent increase from the previous year. The increase is largely because of heavy rainfall in Hawaii, contamination from unidentified sources in California, and oil washing up in the Gulf of Mexico from the BP disaster.
The large majority of closing and advisory days — 70 percent — were issued because testing revealed indicator bacteria levels in the water that exceeded health standards, indicating the presence of human or animal waste. Stormwater runoff was the primary known source of known pollution nationwide, consistent with past years, indicating the problem has not been sufficiently addressed at the national level. Sewage overflows were also a contributor.
This year’s report found that water quality at America’s beaches remained largely steady, with 8 percent of beachwater samples nationwide exceeding public health standards in 2010, compared with 7 percent for the previous four years.
The region with the most frequently contaminated beachwater in 2010 was the Great Lakes, where 15 percent of beachwater samples exceeded public health standards. The Southeast, New York-New Jersey coast, and Delmarva region proved the cleanest at 4 percent, 5 percent, and 6 percent respectively.
Individual states with the highest rates of reported contamination in 2010 were Louisiana (37 percent exceeding health standards), Ohio (21 percent), and Indiana (16 percent). Those with the lowest rates of contamination last year were New Hampshire (1 percent), New Jersey (2 percent), Oregon (3 percent), Hawaii (3 percent) and Delaware (3 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.
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 during the past several decades, and with coastal populations growing, it is reasonable to expect this upward trend to continue until the pollution sources are addressed.
Oil spill impact on Gulf beaches
More than a year later, the impacts of the BP oil disaster, the worst in U.S. history, still linger in the Gulf of Mexico. Over the course of two months, approximately 170 million gallons of oil gushed into Gulf waters, washing up on approximately 1,000 miles of shoreline. As of the end of January, 83 miles of shoreline remained heavily or moderately oiled, while tar balls and weathered oil continue to wash ashore.
As a result, many beaches in the region have issued oil spill advisories, closures, and notices since the disaster began more than a year ago. A state-by-state look at oil spill notices, advisories, and closures at Gulf Coast beaches from the beginning of the spill through June 15, 2011 can be found online at www.nrdc.org/water/oceans/ttw/gulf.pdf.
While most oil-related advisories, closures, and notices were lifted by the end of the year, cleanup crews are still at work and the spill is still interfering with trips to some beaches as oil continues to wash ashore in Alabama, Louisiana, Florida, and Mississippi. As of June 15, 2011, four beach segments in Louisiana that closed due to oil have yet to open, and three beaches in Florida have remained under oil spill notice.
There have been a total of 9,474 days of oil-related beach notices, advisories, and closures at Gulf Coast beaches since the spill, as of June 15, 2011. Louisiana has been hit the hardest, with 3,420 days in that state, while there were 2,245 days in Florida, 2,148 days in Mississippi, and 1,661 days in Alabama.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that more than 10 trillion gallons of untreated stormwater make their way into the nation’s surface waters each year, and there are 850 billion gallons of wastewater, which includes sewage and stormwater, released in combined sewer overflows annually.
According to the NRDC, the best way to keep this pollution out of America’s beachwater is to prevent it from the start by investing in smarter, greener infrastructure on land — like porous pavement, green roofs, parks, roadside plantings, and rain barrels — that makes a real difference in the water. Green infrastructure stops rain where it falls, storing it or letting it filter back into the ground naturally. This keeps it from running off dirty streets and carrying pollution to the beach. And it keeps it from overloading sewage systems and triggering overflows.
These smarter water practices on land not only prevent pollution at the beach, they beautify neighborhoods, cool and cleanse the air, reduce asthma and heat-related illnesses, save on heating and cooling energy costs, boost economies, and support American jobs at the same time. Cities nationwide are already starting to embrace these practices at the local level. By embracing green infrastructure at a national scale, the NRDC said, the federal government can significantly clean up the water at America’s beaches for the future.