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Stating Health of U.S. Beaches Elusive as Netting a Wave

WASHINGTON, DC, July 29, 2005 (ENS) - Water quality officials monitoring Rhode Island's Warren Town Beach in 2003 found that sewage from a broken sewer line was entering a brick storm water basin and being discharged into the town's popular bathing area. The town repaired the sewer line, and routine sampling during the 2004 bathing season showed bacteria levels below the action level.

The Cuyahoga County Board of Health in Ohio monitored streams and shoreline storm sewer outflows for E. coli at 15 beaches last year. Officials discovered 16 locations where bacteria levels were elevated, and local municipalities are now investigating where the contamination is originating so they can eliminate it.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is claiming credit for both of these advances in bathing water safety because EPA grants funded each of these local efforts to reduce beach water pollution.

The agency released its most recent data on beach closings and advisories Wednesday and points proudly to figures showing that only four percent of beach days were lost in 2004 due to advisories or closures triggered by monitoring for bacteria.

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Mission Beach, San Diego, California (Photo courtesy City of San Diego)
"The small percentage of beach days lost in 2004 is encouraging," said EPA Assistant Administrator for Water Benjamin Grumbles.

But the EPA figures are contradicted by the latest annual report by the Natural Resources Defense Council, or NRDC, issued Thursday.

Beach closings due to hazardous bacterial contamination are on the rise nationwide, says the environmental group, which counted nearly 20,000 closing and health advisory days across the country in 2004, the most since NRDC began tracking the problem 15 years ago.

Nationally the number of beach closing days jumped nine percent, from 18,224 days in 2003 to 19,950 days in 2004, according to the NRDC.

One reason, the group says, is that "improved monitoring spurred by previous reports is now uncovering the true extent of the pollution problem."

The differences between 2003 and 2004 beach closing figures are attributable both to greater state participation in the program and also to improved measurement and monitoring made possible by grant money from the EPA, Grumbles said.

For the past five years, EPA has provided nearly $42 million in grants to 35 coastal and Great Lakes states and territories. The grants fund water monitoring and public information programs that alert beachgoers about the health and safety of their beaches.

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North Beach, Calvert County, Maryland is a popular beach on Chesapeake Bay. (Photo courtesy Calvert County)
The EPA says its grant money is helping communities make progress in cleaning up polluted runoff. An EPA grant enabled North Beach, Maryland, on the Chesapeake Bay, to monitor more frequently in 2003. The increased monitoring revealed high fecal counts during the bathing season from a storm water system sharing a common conduit with an aging, sanitary sewer system. Town officials moved the storm water outfall.

As a result, 2004 beach season sampling revealed better water quality in the North Beach area, and the beach remained open all season with no advisories or closures.

Most of the 2004 closures reported to the EPA were relatively short in duration, the agency says. More than 2,700 closings were two days or less, and only 59 closings lasted more than 30 days.

The number of beaches monitored has more than tripled in the eight years of the monitoring program's existence - 3,574 beaches monitored in 2004, as compared with 1,021 in 1997.

The NRDC report shows that states with the biggest jump in 2004 closing and advisory days compared with 2003 were Texas, Washington, Maryland, Minnesota, Michigan, New York, and Illinois. Hawaii went from no closing or advisory days in 2003 to 1,169 in 2004. Maine went from none in 2003 to 56 in 2004.

Eighty-five percent of the closing and advisory days were prompted by dangerously high bacteria levels, indicating the presence of human or animal waste. The NRDC points to the main culprits as improperly treated sewage and bacteria contaminated storm water runoff.

Grumbles said federal dollars have gone a long way to help states identify problems. "Reducing exposure to disease causing bacteria in beach water will help protect all Americans, especially children, who are more susceptible to pathogens," he said. "Finding the sources of pollution will help keep beach-goers safe at their favorite recreational spots."

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A busy day at Jones Beach, Long Island, New York (Photo courtesy JonesBeach.com)
The beach monitoring program is required under the Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health (BEACH) Act. Coastal and Great Lakes states and territories must report to EPA on beach monitoring and notification data for their coastal recreation waters.

On November 8, 2004, the EPA began applying new, more protective standards to reduce beachgoers' exposure to harmful bacteria. When bacteria reach unhealthy levels, states or local agencies either issue a beach advisory, warning of possible swimming risks, or close a beach to the public.

Of the beaches reported to EPA last year, 942, or 26 percent, had at least one advisory or closing during the 2004 season.

"Instead of closing our beaches, let's clean up the water," said Nancy Stoner, director of NRDC's Clean Water Project. "Authorities have gotten better at finding the problems. Now they need to stop the pollution at its source by repairing and replacing leaky sewage and septic systems, and cleaning up contaminated runoff."

Grumbles says the EPA is working to make information about beach water quality available faster and easier. New data collection techniques among state and local partners facilitated by the federal agency will make the 2005 swimming season data more readily available to the public.

But the latest State of the Beach report issued Thursday by the Surfrider Foundation shows that information is scarce, hidden, confusing or disturbing, and that it only covers beach access and water quality.

On the island of Oahu in Hawaii, almost 25 percent of the sandy shoreline has either significantly narrowed or been lost since the 1940s, Surfrider calculates, but for most states, there is still little information about beach erosion, beach fill, shoreline structures and beach ecology.

Much of the beach information that does exist is hidden in academic journals or studies that line the bookshelves of coastal zone management offices, the Surfrider report says.

"This information may help professionals make policy decisions. However, it is often not made available to the public or it is not written in a way that is easily understood by the average citizen.

Surfrider researchers did uncover one statistic that is easy to understand - every eight months, nearly 11 million gallons of oil - the equivalent of the Exxon Valdez oil spill - run off streets and driveways into American waters.

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Sunrise as seen through the sea oats at Nannygoat Beach, Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve, Georgia. (Photo courtesy NOAA)
But much beach information is a maze of contradictory and conflicting facts, the Surfrider researchers found. Comparing water quality and beach closure information between states and among local jurisdictions is "difficult due to inconsistencies in test methods, frequency of testing, closure and advisory standards, notification procedures, and terminology."

"The lack of efforts by government and the scientific community to educate the public about coastal environmental issues is alarming," says Surfrider, because, "It leaves the public without an adequate understanding of how government policies and decisions affect beach health and severely limits their ability to participate in the decision-making process.

Surfrider does note that more of this type of information is gradually becoming available online via state coastal zone management websites and that some of the technical information is being distilled into "Citizen Guides" on such topics as beach access, pollution prevention and coastal hazards.

EPA summary information for 2004 is available at: http://www.epa.gov/waterscience/beaches/2004fs.html

Information about specific beaches is available at: http://www.epa.gov/waterscience/beacon/

General information about EPA's beaches program, including a listing of all 35 coastal and Great lakes states and territories is available at: http://www.epa.gov/beaches/

The NRDC report on beach closings, "Testing the Waters: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches," is online at: http://www.nrdc.org/water/oceans/nttw.asp

The Surfrider State of the Beach 2005 is found at: http://www.surfrider.org/stateofthebeach/



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