June 30, 2011

Report Highlights Poor Water Quality At US Beaches

The number of U.S. beach closings and health advisories reached 24,091 in 2010, the second-highest level in 21 years, according to an annual beach water report released Wednesday by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

The survey of water quality and public notifications, entitled "Testing the Waters", confirms that our nation's beaches continue to suffer from bacterial pollution that puts swimmers at risk, the non-profit group said.

Using data gathered at more than 3,200 U.S. beaches, the council found that 70 percent of last year's beach closings and health advisories were issued after testing showed bacteria levels in the water exceeded health standards.  Overall, 8 percent of water samples exceeded national standards, the NRDC said.

The report also rated 200 popular beaches based on the cleanliness of the water and their monitoring and public notification practices.  

The survey focused primarily on bacteria-related beach water quality concerns, but also highlights closures, advisories, and notices issued at beaches impacted by last summer's BP oil spill.  From the beginning of the spill until June 15, 2011, there were 9,474 days of oil-related beach notices, advisories and closures at Gulf Coast beaches due to the spill, the NRDC said.

At other beaches, aging and poorly designed sewage treatment systems and contaminated storm water are often to blame for beach water pollution.  Indeed, nearly three-quarters of the 2010 U.S. beach closings and advisories were due to bacteria levels that exceeded health and safety standards.  

The report described several shortcomings in current methods of preventing and managing problems associated with beach water pollution.  For example, illnesses associated with polluted beach water include skin rashes, pinkeye, respiratory infections, meningitis and hepatitis, but current standards focus mainly on gastrointestinal illnesses such as the stomach flu. 

Additionally, current water quality tests take 24 hours or more to produce results, so beaches are not closed or placed under advisory until after beachgoers have spent an entire day swimming in water that did not meet quality standards.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has taken steps to address some of these issues, such as implementing a major overhaul of the Clean Water Act regulations that apply to urban and suburban runoff pollution, the NRDC said.

These changes have the potential to ensure that impervious areas that generate runoff pollution will be designed in a way to retain a significant amount of storm water on site.

The EPA has also agreed to update its decades-old beach water quality standards by 2012, and to approve new water testing methods that produce same-day results.  

To prevent beach pollution, the NRDC advises beachgoers to clean up pet waste, put swim diapers with plastic covers on babies and keep trash off the beach.  Septic systems should also be properly maintained.

The full NRDC report can be viewed online at

Beach ratings by state can be viewed at