Our Beleaguered Beaches

Increased Pollution And Lax Water Quality Standards Lessen Summer Fun In The Sun

Time may be running out for many of America’s most popular beaches. Even as millions of vacationers summer on the shore, the beaches are under constant attack, not from menacing sharks but from floating slicks of garbage, raw sewage, oil spills, fecal bacteria, toxic algal blooms, bacterial outbreaks, even unexploded military ordnance. Indeed, water pollution is making waves in every coastal and Great Lakes state. Last year alone, there were more than 4,500 swimming advisories and temporary beach closings, and that number is expected to rise.

In many coastal towns, when it rains, it pours—literally. As little as a quarter-inch of rain can sometimes be enough to choke the capacity of antiquated sewer systems, causing a treatment plant to discharge excess raw sewage into the nearest stream or beach. Additionally, as rainwater washes over roads, construction sites, animal lots and industrial areas, it picks up oil, salt, grease, pesticides and other pollutants. This runoff usually ends up in a city’s storm drains and is released directly into waterways without treatment.

A 1995 study by the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Project found that people who unknowingly swim near discharge drains have a 57 percent greater incidence of getting sick from pollution-related illness than those swimming farther away. The most common symptoms include fever, chills, vomiting, respiratory illness and diarrhea, which typically keep a person home from work a day or two, but can be much more serious for infants, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems.

Of course, rain and sewer water aren’t the only causes of beach pollution. In North Carolina, animal waste from large feedlots has been linked to dangerous outbreaks of the Pfiesteria microorganism. One can sometimes find unexploded munitions on Virginia’s Buckroe Beach, owing to a nearby Air Force base. And then there’s poisonous industrial waste, which makes the water at some New Jersey beaches “so black that the waves don’t seem like they could break, they’re so full of stuff,” according to Dr. Stephen Leatherman, director of the University of Maryland Lab for Coastal Research.

Many environmentalists argue that health threats posed by beach contamination ought to be a splash in the face for the federal government, which has thus far been lax in requiring uniform water quality standards.

“People get sick when they go to beaches, and the real problem is that some states don’t even monitor their waters,” says Kelli McGee, the coastal program counsel for the American Oceans Campaign. “The top concern with beach pollution is testing for water quality and notifying the public. To be safe, there needs to be national standards.”

Only seven states and Puerto Rico currently have systems in place to comprehensively monitor their beaches and notify the public when pollution levels become unsafe. Of these, Mississippi, Puerto Rico and Texas test their waters, but do not close their beaches or notify the public if they exceed environmental safety standards. And five states—Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Oregon and Washington—do little or no monitoring at all.

A rising tide of public concern has prompted both the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to create internet sites offering web-surfers data about the nation’s beaches. As Rick Hoffman in the EPA’s Office of Water says, it’s essential to “protect public health through public information.”

But some experts say this information is, at best, vague and watered-down. The EPA only began its nationwide beach-monitoring program in 1998. And besides, there’s little national organizations can do to provide swimmers with comprehensive, up-to-the-minute information on beach closings, mostly since beach pollution tends to be a local issue. Often times, the decision to close a beach rests with the county health department. Water testing can differ greatly from state to state and even county to county. These varying standards makes crafting a national policy and assessing beach pollution on a national scale extremely difficult, says Matt Liebman, EPA New England regional beach coordinator.

Some states and communities have taken the lead in combating beach pollution. San Francisco recently completed a 20-year, $1.45 billion effort to revamp its sewer system, preventing dangerous overflows. Other coastal towns have begun incorporating buffer zones (green areas near streams and coasts that absorb runoff water and act to filter out pollutants) into their growth plans. Delaware makes use of complex models to reliably predict where beach pollution could be dangerous.

There are also steps individuals can take to decrease their own impact on beaches. The NRDC suggests people conserve water, use natural fertilizers, properly dispose of litter and household toxics—especially motor oil, and even avoid flushing the toilet during a rainstorm.

Photo: © Carol SimowitzCarol Simowitz

Individual action and uniform monitoring practices can only go so far, however, compared to the immense population strains put on beaches. Almost 100 million people will travel to beaches this summer for recreational purposes, and by the year 2010, it’s predicted that half the country’s population will live in coastal towns. Under such pressure, there’s a heightened chance of coastal habitat loss, which could be devastating to the commercial fish catch, 75 percent of which is coast-dependent, argues McGee. Outbreaks of disease would be more common. Tourism at some beaches could evaporate, as well as many beach economies.

“We’re encouraging localities to better plan their growth, so you don’t have people living at the water’s edge to be swept away every year when the hurricanes come,” says McGee. Officials at the EPA also encourage a smart-growth idea, one that incorporates sound environmental practices into the city’s long-term development plan. If that doesn’t happen, some pundits predict dire consequences.

“You’ll have people moving away from their nice farm to look at a cesspool,” McGee says, half-jokingly. “And nobody wants to do that.”