American Coasts in Fair to Poor Condition

WASHINGTON, DC, January 18, 2005 (ENS) - Estuaries across the United States are in fair condition overall, but conditions are poor in the estuaries of the Northeast coast and Puerto Rico regions, four federal resources agencies say in a new report on the coastal environment that is issued only once every four years.

The 2005 National Coastal Condition Report released on Monday is a comprehensive report on the condition of the nation’s estuarine waters and coastal fisheries. It shows poor to fair conditions in the Great Lakes, fair conditions in the Gulf coast, Great Lakes, and West coast, and good conditions in the Southeast coast.

Estuaries are transition zones between the fresh water of a river and the saline environment of the sea, receiving freshwater and sediment from rivers and tidal influx from the oceans. This interaction produces a unique environment that supports wildlife and fisheries and contributes to the economy of coastal areas.

Key Biscayne

Florida's Key Biscayne Beach on the bay side of the island (Photo courtesy NOAA)
The new report is a collaborative effort between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), in cooperation with other agencies representing states and tribes.

It is based on monitoring data collected between 1997 and 2000 on the condition of the estuarine and Great Lakes resources of the United States.

No overall assessments were completed of Alaska, Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands, or the U.S. Virgin Islands; but the EPA says surveys of Alaska and Hawaii have been completed, samples are being analyzed, and data will be presented in the next report, due in 2009.

New ecological monitoring programs will permit a comprehensive and consistent assessment of all of the nation’s coastal resources by 2006, the agency says.

This narrow strip of coastline around the country is heavily used and are the most developed areas in the nation, the study found. This narrow fringe - only 17 percent of total contiguous U.S. land area - is home to more than 53 percent of the nation’s population. This means that more than one-half of the U.S. population lives in less than one-fifth of the total area of the conterminous 48 states.

This coastal population is increasing by 3,600 people per day, giving a projected total increase of 27 million people by 2015, the researchers found. This rate of growth is faster than that of the nation as a whole, and it is great stress on the coastal environment.

In the report's introduction, the situation is expressed in no uncertain terms. "Because a disproportionate percentage of the nation’s population lives in coastal areas, the activities of municipalities, commerce, industry, and tourism have created environmental pressures that threaten the very resources that make the coast desirable."

"Population pressures include increased solid waste production, higher volumes of urban nonpoint source runoff, loss of green space and wildlife habitat, declines in ambient water and sediment quality, and increased demands for wastewater treatment, irrigation and potable water, and energy supplies.

"Development pressures have resulted in substantial physical changes along many areas of the coastal zone. Coastal wetlands continue to be lost to residential and commercial development, and the quantity and timing of freshwater flow, critical to riverine and estuarine function, continue to be altered. In effect, the same human uses that are desired of coastal waters also have the potential to lessen their value.

Even without the evidence presented in this report, conservation groups and local legislators are working to protect the coastal environment.

In New York City, for instance, Councilman David Yassky released a report on November 29, 2004 outlining dozens of pollution violations in the city's waterways. The report, compiled by New York Council staff, details what Yassky called "a shocking trend of inattention to these polluters" by New York state and city governments - allowing companies to dump gravel, metal and concrete into the city’s rivers and tributaries unchecked and unpunished.

New York

Manhattan's South Street Seaport (Photo courtesy NOAA)
“These are not minor infractions or clandestine dump-and-run jobs,” said Yassky, who chairs the Council Waterfronts Committee. “Businesses are dumping scrap metal, cement, gravel, and more into our waterways in broad daylight, in full view of any passerby. It is incredible and downright shameful that these polluters ruin our rivers and creeks with no fear of retribution."

Riverkeeper testified during a November 29 hearing of Yassky's committee in support of increasing penalty levels for violations of the city’s waterfront pollution law from the current $250 to $5,000 level to fines of $1,000 to $5,000 for the first violation and $5,000 to $10,000 for the second violation, as well as double the cost of any cleanup undertaken by the government.

“This law is an important first step in continuing and strengthening the city’s protection of its waterfront," said Basil Seggos of Riverkeeper. “Pollution-free waterways are imperative for the health and welfare of the city and for the vibrancy of its economy." The bill has not yet become law.

In California, another coastal conservation won a legal victory in December. A Sacramento Superior Court ruling will halt pesticide spraying into hundreds of miles of Central Valley water ways by three irrigation districts. The ruling came in response to a series of lawsuits brought by Waterkeepers Northern California’s Deltakeeper project because the agencies failed to conduct environmental assessments required by law. The San Joaquin Raptor Rescue Center, Protect Our Water, and the Central Valley Safe Environment Network also joined the suits.

Filed in February 2004, the lawsuits charged the Turlock, Merced and South San Joaquin Irrigation Districts with applying toxic pesticides to hundreds of miles of waterways without first studying the effects that the chemicals would have on the environment. Waterkeepers asked the Court to discontinue the districts’ spraying programs until the environmental impacts were studied as required by the California Environmental Quality Act.

The waterways affected by this ruling empty into the San Francisco Bay and Delta Estuary.

The National Coastal Condition Report II not only discusses indicators of coastal condition that gauge the extent to which coastal habitats and resources have been altered, but also adresses connections between coastal condition and the ability of coastal areas to meet human expectations for their use.

For this report, estuaries were rated based on five indicators of ecological condition:

  1. water quality index - including dissolved oxygen, chlorophyll a, nitrogen, phosphorus, and water clarity
  2. sediment quality index - including sediment toxicity, sediment contaminants, and sediment total organic carbon
  3. benthic index, measuring the bottom of a waterway
  4. coastal habitat index
  5. fish tissue contaminants index
Nanny Goat Beach, Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve, Georgia. (Photo by Jim Couch courtesy NOAA)
Thirty-five percent of assessed resources were found to be impaired and in poor condition for aquatic life or human use, whereas only 21 percent were rated unimpaired and in good condition. Forty-four percent of the resources assessed are considered to be in threatened or fair condition.

Twenty-two percent of estuarine waters are impaired for fishing, based on the risk-based noncancer guidelines for moderate consumption, the study found. Suitability of waters for fishing is measured using the fish tissue contaminants index in this report.

Twenty-eight percent of estuarine waters are impaired for aquatic life use. Suitability of waters for aquatic life use is measured using the water quality, sediment quality, benthic, and habitat loss indices in this report.

The indicators that show the poorest conditions throughout the United States are coastal habitat condition, sediment quality, and benthic condition. The indicators that generally show the best condition are the individual components of water quality - dissolved oxygen and dissolved inorganic nitrogen.

The National Coastal Condition Report II is online at: