NRDC's New Beach Report: How Clean Is Your Favorite Swimming Spot?
Before you head to your favorite beach this summer, you might consider this: according to NRDC’s annual Testing the Waters report, American beaches violated public health standards more than 18,600 times last year--mostly because of sewage, animal waste, and runoff. The problem, unfortunately, is persistent.
The good news is that many communities are starting to embrace the solutions that will make our beaches cleaner. Yet until more cities and towns make this shift, many of us may swim in dirty beaches that could literally make us sick.
NRDC’s report found that the region with the most contaminated beachwater in 2009 was the Great Lakes, where 13 percent of beachwater samples violated standards. Louisiana, Rhode Island, and Illinois had the most reported contamination.
Luckily, other beaches were in better shape. NRDC used a 5-star rating system to rank the top 200 most popular U.S beaches. Beaches in Minnesota, New Hampshire, California, and Alabama received 5 stars. (Some of the high ranked beaches along the Gulf Coast have been closed this year because of the BP oil spill. Click here to find out which ones.)
But many favorite beaches in Florida, Maine, Mississippi, North Carolina, New York, Rhode Island, and South Carolina got the lowest ratings.
Many of us assume that beach water quality must be more or less the same within the same region or community, but that is not true. In Southern California, for example, we have some of the very best beaches in the country—and some of the worst. Most of the time, you can’t tell which is which just by standing on the sand and looking. That is why testing the water is so important.
Well before the Deepwater Horizon blowout (a tragedy which we cover in a special section of our report this year), America’s beaches were being hit by a more commonplace problem: stormwater runoff. Every time it rains in many places across the country, the rain sweeps a torrent of pollutants to local beaches, often without any treatment at all. EPA estimates 10 trillion gallons of runoff every year, an amount that reflects the degree to which traditional building approaches literally cap the earth in concrete, preventing natural infiltration and increasing storm flows dramatically.
This means we may be swimming in bacteria that can cause stomach flu, skin rashes, pinkeye, hepatitis, respiratory ailments, and other serious health problems. For senior citizens, small children, and those with weak immune systems, the results can be especially severe.
We don’t have to settle for swimming in fecal-contaminated waters. Something called green infrastructure--things like pocket parks, grassy swales, and permeable pavement—has been proven to keep water on site and dramatically reduce the dirty stormwater polluting our beaches. Green infrastructure is basically just a set of practices that soak up the rain.
Just a few years ago, green infrastructure was a “boutique” curiosity. But now, cities, counties, and even developers are embracing green infrastructure.
As a clean water advocate, I welcome the new wave of interest in stormwater solutions. I also welcome the fact that thanks to NRDC’s advocacy, the EPA is accelerating the timetable for proposing new standards for beachwater that fully protect swimmers, and establishing testing methods that will enable public health officials to make prompt decisions about closing beaches and issuing advisories.
But polluted beaches remain a persistent problem. Though the number of closings and advisories fluctuates slightly from year to year, the fact remains that too many beaches are being deemed unfit for swimming. Each time we can add another county to the list of communities adopting green infrastructure, we will chip away at that list of closings and advisories and make our beaches cleaner and safer for all of us to enjoy.
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