July 30, 2008

U.S. Beach Closures Second-Highest in 2007

By John Myers, Duluth News-Tribune, Minn.

The water at ocean and Great Lakes beaches across the U.S. were posted as unsafe for swimming for 22,571 days in 2007, the second-highest level since the Natural Resources Defense Council began keeping track in 1991.

The total is down 12 percent from the number of days closed in 2006. But the environmental group, which tracks U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data, said 2007 saw the second-highest rate of beach closings in the 18 years they have checked.

Seven percent of all tests of water quality at U.S. beaches being monitored in 2007 found levels of bacteria that made them unfit for swimming and wading. The danger of sickness occurs when people swallow water or otherwise ingest the bacteria.

Environmental advocates said the continued problem of beach contamination underscores the need to fix on-land pollution problems such as sewage overflows and polluted runoff from urban areas.

"The numbers show we have made some progress, but not enough," said Rosie Loeffler-Kemp, Northeastern Minnesota coordinator for Clean Water Action. "But I think, since we've had the monitoring and since we've seen these annual reports, more people are paying attention to the problem. More people see that the problems on the beaches are at least in part the result of problems we have with stormwater runoff and sewage spills in Duluth."

Loeffler-Kemp praised the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency's effort to keep track of problem beaches and alert the public.

This is the first year the Natural Resources Defense Council used a five-star rating system for popular swimming beaches. Three of Duluth's beaches on the Lake Superior side of Park Point received the highest rating because of consistent monitoring and consistently high water quality.

Families heading to an ocean or Great Lakes beach should "be careful and do a little homework," said Nancy Stoner, direct of the NRDC's Clean Water Project.

In Minnesota, waterfront access points along Lake Superior and the Duluth harbor -- the only beaches in the state tested under the EPA program -- were posted as potentially unsafe for a total of 195 days last year. There were 66 samples tested that exceeded safety standards at Minnesota beaches, up from 51 in 2006 but down from 92 in 2005, a much wetter summer. The vast majority of high bacteria readings are in the Duluth area, especially in shallow bays in the harbor.

The PCA tests water at least weekly at 40 locations from the harbor up the North Shore to Grand Portage under the EPA-funded program that started on the Great Lakes in 2003. The PCA notes that almost all beach closures occur immediately after major storm and rain events that rile up the water and wash e-coli and other bacteria into the lake.

The most chronic beach postings are at three locations on the harbor side of Park Point where frequent waterfowl and shallow, warm water combine for prolonged posting as unsafe for human contact.

There have been 31 beach postings so far this year.

Minnesota ranked 11th among U.S. coastal and Great Lakes states for beach problems in 2007, exceeding standards 7 percent of the time.

Wisconsin ranked third in the number of beach closures, exceeding standards 16 percent of the time in 2007, down from 17 percent in 2006 and the same as 2005. All of Wisconsin's most chronically unsafe beaches are on Lake Michigan.