By James Limbach

July 29, 2009
Summertime means sun surf and sand at the beach, right? Not so fast says the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

In its 19th annual beachwater quality report, the environmental group says the water at American beaches was seriously polluted and jeopardized the health of swimmers last year with the number of closing and advisory days at ocean, bay and Great Lakes beaches reaching more than 20,000 for the fourth consecutive year.

"Pollution from dirty stormwater runoff and sewage overflows continues to make its way to our beaches. This not only makes swimmers sick -- it hurts coastal economies," said Nancy Stoner, NRDC Water Program Co-Director. "Americans should not suffer the consequences of contaminated beachwater. From contracting the flu or pink eye, to jeopardizing millions of jobs and billions of dollars that rely on clean coasts, there are serious costs to inaction."

Using data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, NRDC's report, Testing the Waters: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches, confirms that our nation's beachwaters continue to suffer from serious contamination -- including human and animal waste -- that can make people sick.

The report also provides a 5-star rating guide for 200 of the nation's most popular beaches, based on indicators of beachwater quality, monitoring frequency, and public notification of contamination.

Five-star beaches included:

• Gulf Shores Public Beach (AL),

• Laguna Beach-Main Beach (CA),

• Bolsa Chica State Beach in Huntington Beach (CA),

• Newport Beach (CA),

• Ocean City (MD),

• Park Point-Community Club Beach in Duluth (MN) and

• Hampton Beach State Park in Hampton (NH).

Some of the lowest ranking beaches (1-star) were:

• Zach's Bay at Jones Beach State Park in Wantagh (NY),

• Ocean Beach Park in New London (CT),

• Venice Public Beach (FL) and

• Central Beach in Point Pleasant (NJ).

While the report found a 10 percent decrease in closing and advisory days at beaches nationwide from 2007, it reveals this drop was the result of dry conditions in many parts of the country and decreased funding for water monitoring in some states last year, rather than a sign of large-scale improvement.

The decline follows two years of record-high closing and advisory days and the primary pollution source, stormwater runoff after heavy rains, continues to be a serious problem that has not been addressed.

"When the rains return," Stoner said, "so will pollution, forcing beaches to issue more closings and advisory days."

Nationally, 7 percent of beachwater samples violated health standards -- indicating the presence of human or animal waste -- showing no improvement from 2007 or 2006. The highest level of contamination was found in the Great Lakes, where 13 percent of beachwater samples violated public health standards. In fact, from 2005-2008, the Great Lakes consistently tested the dirtiest, while the Southeast and Delmarva Peninsula proved relatively cleaner than other regions.

States with the highest percentage of samples exceeding health standards in 2008 were Louisiana (29 percent), Ohio (19 percent), Indiana (18 percent) and Illinois (15 percent). Those with the lowest percent of water samples exceeding health standards last year were Delaware, New Hampshire and Virginia (all with 1 percent).

Beachwater pollution makes swimmers vulnerable to a range of waterborne illnesses including stomach flu, skin rashes, pinkeye, ear, nose and throat problems, dysentery, hepatitis, respiratory ailments, neurological disorders and other serious health problems. For senior citizens, small children and people with weak immune systems, the results can be fatal.

"Nobody wants their trip to the beach to send them to the bathroom or, worse, the emergency room," said Stoner. "It is vitally important to remember that if it has recently rained - or you see or smell a pipe discharging onto the beach - keep your head above water or avoid swimming altogether."