There were fewer closings and health advisories due to polluted water at American beaches last year than in 2006, the worst year for beach water pollution, finds the annual report on beach water quality issued today by the Natural Resources Defense Council. But there is little room for celebration - the report shows 2007 was the second-worst year for beaches since NRDC began tracking these events 18 years ago.
"Some families can't enjoy their local beaches because they are polluted and kids are getting sick - largely because of human and animal waste in the water," said Nancy Stoner, director of NRDC's clean water project.
Using data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the report, "Testing the Waters: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches," shows the number of closing and advisory days at ocean, bay and Great Lakes beaches was more than 20,000 for the third consecutive year.
For the first time this year, NRDC is rating more than 100 popular beaches with a five-star rating guide based on the cleanliness of the water as well asmonitoring and public notification practices. Besides, the NRDC report is filled with warnings about polluted beach water. Nationally, seven percent of beachwater samples violated health standards, showing no improvement from 2006.
The greatest source of pollution continues to be contamination from stormwater, which caused more than 10,000 closing and advisory days. Whenever it rains, stormwater carries pollution from urban and suburban streets to the beach without any treatment. Unknown sources of pollution, also called nonpoint sources, caused more than 8,000 closing and advisory days in 2007.
The biggest increase in closing and advisory days, 38 percent, was in the Gulf Coast region, partly because beaches in Louisiana and Mississippi were reopened and monitored for the first full beach season there since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck in 2005. The biggest drop in closing and advisory days was a 36 percent reduction in Hawaii, which had an abnormal rainfall year in 2006.
The report blames aging and poorly-designed sewage and stormwater systems for much of the beach water pollution. Sprawling development in coastal areas is eliminating wetlands and other natural buffers such as dunes and beach grass that would have helped filter out pollution before it reaches the beach, the report points out.
Not only are the beaches polluted, the way they are tested is also failing the American public, according to NRDC. Beach water quality standards are more than 20 years old and rely on outdated science and monitoring methods that leave beachgoers vulnerable to a range of waterborne illnesses including gastroenteritis, dysentery, hepatitis, and respiratory ailments. For senior citizens, small children, and people with weak immune systems, the results can be fatal.