NRDC Beach Water Quality Report Shows The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly at California's Beaches
“Rain, rain go away…” might be popular as a nursery rhyme, but it’s a hugely unpopular sentiment right now in California, as this epic drought puts increasing strain on communities throughout the state. And even though stormwater remains a leading cause of pollution at California’s beaches, hoping for less rain is not a long-term solution.
Finding a way to reduce pollution is absolutely critical for California’s thriving beach and coastal economy. According to NRDC’s annual beach water report, Testing the Waters: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches, released today, 9 percent of water quality samples collected last year at California beaches contained bacteria levels that failed to meet the most protective threshold for swimmer safety set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – putting California, sadly, on par with a 10 percent failure rate for the country’s beaches overall. Far too many of the state’s beaches are failing to meet this benchmark for safe water 20, 30, or 40 percent (and upwards) of the time, putting beachgoers at increased risk of swimming in polluted water that can cause serious waterborne illnesses like stomach flu, pinkeye, and even respiratory ailments and neurological disorders.
Today’s report, the 24th annual release, collects and analyzes the latest water testing results from the EPA and state beach coordinators at nearly 3,500 beach testing locations nationwide. It examines the various causes of water pollution that plague America’s beaches and identifies opportunities for all of us – government leaders, homeowners and beachgoers – to keep pollution out of our beaches, lakes, and rivers.
Beaches across the state are polluted by a variety of contamination sources and major environmental stresses, including the largest known source of beach water pollution -- stormwater runoff from our urban and suburban environments. And even though 2013 was recorded as one of the driest years for much of California since the state started keeping records 150 years ago – meaning less rainfall flushing pollution out to our coastal waters – an unacceptable number of California’s beaches saw high levels of pollution last year.
Hoping it rains even less is obviously not a solution to this problem. Instead, we need to be capturing rain where it falls by using green infrastructure solutions to turn this potential source of pollution into a valuable resource for our communities. Green infrastructure techniques like rain gardens, curb cuts, rain barrels, and porous pavement can help recharge groundwater or harvest rainwater for non-potable uses like landscape irrigation and toilet flushing, saving on both water use and bills.
However, in addition to dirty runoff, our local waters are threatened by sewage spills, climate change, and a lack of federal policies that could fully protect the streams and wetlands that help sustain clean beaches. Wetlands and small streams help ensure that beaches downstream remain safe for swimming and fishing by removing pollutants from the water that passes through them and by retaining stormwater that often causes pollution problems. Thankfully, the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers are working to ensure that tributary streams and wetlands are protected from pollution under the Clean Water Act. The agencies recently proposed a Clean Water Protection Rule, which will help better protect our beaches and the local economies that depend on them. The proposed rule, officially known as the “Waters of the U.S. Rule,” is open for public comment until October 20. By clicking on this link, YOU can take action to make sure the rule fully protects California’s (and the rest of the country’s) beaches.
In all this, though, there IS good news: despite the pollution challenges we face, California also has a number of world class beaches that are generally safe for swimming, including one, Newport Beach at 38th Street, identified as a “Superstar” Beach in NRDC’s report.
But this means two things: first, people need to make sure they know what’s in the water at the beaches they visit, and to choose their beach carefully. Because California has such clean, healthy beaches right next to others that may be polluted or unsafe for swimming, it’s critical that people check out the beaches they’re visiting to make sure it’s safe to swim. And second, we need to keep working on preventing pollution from reaching our shores in the first place, so that the pollution problem we face doesn’t continue to overshadow what’s good about California’s beaches.
We need it to rain in California. We need water to flow in our rivers and streams. And we need for our beaches to be safe for everyone when it does.
In 2013, California reported 729 coastal beaches and beach segments, 501 of which were monitored. Of all reported beach monitoring samples, 9% exceeded the Beach Action Value (BAV) of 60 enterococcus bacteria colony forming units (cfu) per 100 ml marine or estuarine water in a single sample. NRDC considers all reported samples individually (without averaging) when calculating the percent exceedance rates in this analysis. This includes duplicate samples and reported samples taken outside the official beach season, if any.
The beaches with the highest percent exceedance rates of the BAV in 2013 were Aquatic Park in San Mateo County (64%); Lakeshore Park in San Mateo County (48%); Candlestick Point, Windsurfer Circle in San Francisco County (47%); Inner Cabrillo Beach, San Pedro in Los Angeles County (44%); and Newport Bay, Newport Boulevard Bridge in Orange County (44%).
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