THE DETAILS: Now in its 21st year, "Testing the Waters" is an annual look at water-quality tests and public notifications of beach closures at more than 3,000 beaches in the U.S. Not required by federal law, beach water-quality tests are legislated by state and local governments, with requirements ranging from daily to semiweekly to weekly tests, and some states requiring no testing at all. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency does, however, set health standards that shouldn't be exceeded if city, county, and state governments want to prevent people from getting sick. Those standards are designed to limit the presence of microorganisms in the water that can trigger health problems ranging from minor stomach upset to skin rashes to even pink eye and dysentery. NRDC's scientists use city and state data from these tests to see which beaches experience the most closures or swimming advisories due to pollution.
This year's report reveals that America's beaches are not so healthy. "Beach closings spiked to their second highest level in 21 years, a 29 percent increase from the previous year's report," says Jon Devine, senior water attorney, referring to figures from 2010. Part of that had to do with the massive BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last April, but even that event accounted for just 7 percent of beach closings. Seventy percent of closings were attributed to bacterial contamination, caused primarily by heavy rainfalls that wash untreated water into storm drains. Those drains empty directly into oceans, or cause overflow at sewage treatment facilities that then washes bacteria-laden water into the oceans. Other sources of bacterial contamination are wildlife, beachgoers themselves, poorly maintained septic systems located close to a beach, agricultural runoff that promotes the growth of toxin-rich algal blooms, and boaters who dump their sewage into the water.
Another 21 percent of closings were preemptive; city and county officials knew heavy rains would cause such problems and so closed beaches before any water was tested (it can take up to 24 hours for the results of a water-quality test to alert officials to bacterial contamination, and by that point, swimmers have already been exposed).
Most frequently plagued by dirty beaches was the Great Lakes region bordering eight states, where 15 percent of water samples from the area's 406 beaches exceeded national health standards, Devine says. Most of the sources of pollution in that region are unknown, the report's authors found, making it difficult to address pollution there. The Great Lakes region was followed by followed by Western states (8 percent of samples exceeding health standards), the Gulf Coast (8 percent), New England (7 percent), the Delmarva Peninsula (6 percent), the NY–NJ region (5 percent), and the Southeast (4 percent).
WHAT IT MEANS: "We certainly don't want to paint a gloomy picture of America's beaches," says David Beckman, NRDC's water program director. "The purpose of our report is to encourage testing." And not just testing, he adds, but rapid testing that will alert officials to bacterial contamination at beaches the same day water is tested, not 24 hours later. "We'd also like to see cities and municipalities prevent pollution from the start with smarter, greener infrastructure on land," he says. Stormwater that overwhelms drains and sewage treatment plants can be greatly minimized, he adds, with porous pavement and landscaping, both of which allow rainwater to soak into the ground, not wind up in a drain. "This also beautifies neighborhoods, reduces asthma, saves on heating and cooling costs, and supports jobs," he says. Cleaning up beaches is good for local economies, as well. The report cites one study of Lake Michigan in which economists estimated that closing a beach there could cost as much as $37,030 per day.
If your Fourth of July weekend plans include a trip to the beach, here are a few ways to protect yourself from dirty beaches:
• Don't go to a dirty beach! The NRDC report highlighted a few of what they called "Super Star" beaches that had three years' worth of perfect testing results, indicating a history of very good water quality. Those beaches are:
Rehoboth Beach-Rehoboth Avenue Beach in Sussex County, Delaware
Dewey Beach in Sussex County, Delaware
Park Point Lafayette Community Club Beach, in St. Louis County, Minnesota
Hampton Beach State Park in Rockingham County, New Hampshire
The agency has also given ratings of 1 through 5 stars to the country's 200 most popular beaches, so you can see how your favorite destination ranks by visiting their website. You can also view individual summaries of each state's beaches to see how local governments track and monitor beach safety.
• Know before you go. Before you head to the beach, check out the conditions with local health officials. The EPA maintains a list of local agencies responsible for beach water monitoring on its website. And if that isn't helpful, Beckman recommends typing the name of the county where the beach is located, plus "health," plus "beaches," into an Internet search engine to find the local agency responsible for monitoring.
• Use common sense. "If it looks or smells funny, don't go in," says Devine. He also recommends, as a general rule, avoiding beaches within 72 hours after a heavy rainstorm, when bacterial contamination is likely to be at its highest levels. Also, don't swim near or in front of storm drains that empty into lakes or oceans.