Water quality at the beach: how safe is it?

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) just released an important–if not alarming–report on water quality at beaches August 7th. The report claims that the water at American beaches was unsafe for swimming a record number of days last year, according to the 17th annual beach water quality report. Using data collected from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, state and local health departments, and beach monitoring programs, the report titled, “Testing the Waters: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches,” tallied more than 25,000 closing and health advisory days at ocean, bay and Great Lakes beaches in 2006. The number of no-swim days caused by stormwater more than doubled from the year before.

According to the NRDC report, aging and poorly-designed sewage and storm water systems hold much of the blame for beach water pollution. The problem was compounded by record rainfall, which added to the strain on already overloaded infrastructure. The authors also claim that careless urban sprawl in coastal areas is eliminating wetlands and other natural buffers such as dunes and beach grass that would otherwise help filter out dangerous pollution. Additionally, sewage spills and overflows caused 1,301 beach closing and advisory days in 2006, an increase of 402 days from 2005. Elevated bacteria levels from miscellaneous sources, such as boat discharges or wildlife, accounted for 410 closing and advisory days, an increase of 77 days from 2005. In addition, more than 14,000 closing and advisory days were due to unknown sources of pollution.

If a beach monitoring program detects more E. coli or other fecal bacteria than is considered safe by state and federal standards, the event is categorized as “exceedence” in water quality parlance. Those standards are considered by use–in this case, full body contact by swimmers and others using the beach and it’s waters. As the father of a young child who loves to put wet sand and other finds in his mouth, this standard might seem a little lax on it’s own, but it was designed so that someone swimming in water would not casually ingest enough of these bacteria to make them sick. At the same time, new standards may need to be developed as the type and number of water pollutants increases in fresh and coastal waters (see “2007 Beach Protection Act” below for a potential legislative fix).

So how did Oregon beaches stack up against the rest of the country? Here’s what the NRCD reported:

In 2006, the Tier 1 beaches [classified as those beaches with the most seasonal use] with the highest percent exceedances were Twin Rocks Beach in Tillamook County (31%), Nye Beach in Lincoln County (20%), Sunset Bay State Park Beach in Coos County (20%), and Mill Beach (14%), Harris Beach State Park (10%), and Humbug Mountain Beach in Curry County (9%). Thirty-six percent of all monitored beaches did not exceed the standard for any sample taken in 2006. Clatsop county had the highest percentage of beaches with no exceedances (67%), followed by Coos (50%), Tillamook (29%), Lincoln (25%), and one beach each in Douglas and Lane counties.

Relatively speaking, overall Oregon did better when compared to its neighbors in California and Washington. California held steady with 12% of Tier 1 beaches exceeding standards, while Washington’s number of exceedances increasing from 4% in 2005 to 5% in 2006. Overall, Oregon’s average number of exceedences for all high-use beaches in 2006 (3%) were up from 2005 (1%). The key to this comparison in the level of beach-side development with California and Washington far out-pacing Oregon.

The take home lesson here: beach-side and upland watershed land use impacts water quality, health and safety of our beaches. More importantly, stormwater, septic, and sewage systems need investment and upgrading across the US and in Oregon if we want to keep our beaches safe for everyone.

2007 Beach Protection Act

In May, the Beach Protection Act of 2007 (H.R. 2537/S. 1506) was introduced in the U.S. Congress, reauthorizing the Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act (BEACH Act) of 2000. If passed, the Act will mandate the use of rapid testing methods to detect beach water contamination in two hours or less so that beachgoers can be notified of public health risks promptly. The Act will also increase the amount of grant money available to states from $30 million to $60 million annually through 2012, and expand the uses of grant funds to include source tracking and pollution prevention.

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