Unsafe for Swimming

unsafe for swimming © iStockphoto

Summer’s here! Dust off the boogie boards, pack up the car and get ready to feel the warm sand between your toes…if your local beach is open, that is.

According to the annual “Testing the Waters” report from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), there were 24,091 beach closures and advisories for unsafe, unclean water in the U.S. in 2010. That’s the second-highest number since NRDC began tracking these events 21 years ago.

These closures come as the result of elevated levels of bacteria in the water, exposure to which can lead to a host of nasty reactions including skin rashes, pinkeye, respiratory infections, meningitis, hepatitis and gastrointestinal problems like the stomach flu. Mostly, the report concludes, this bacteria enters the ocean through untreated stormwater runoff, 10 trillion gallons of which flows from rooftops, roads, parking lots and other surfaces each year (enough to fill the Rose Bowl to the rim 118,000 times). When rainwater washes over land, it picks up pollutants like trash, motor oil, pet waste, pesticides and fertilizer. Heavy rain can overwhelm sewage systems, forcing raw sewage to bypass treatment plants and flow directly into coastal waters.

unsafe for swimming © Thinkstock

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s Ambient Water Quality Criteria for Bacteria, set in 1986, is the current U.S. beach water quality standard. The standard allows 35 colony forming units of enterococci bacteria per 100 milliliters of water (slightly less than half a cup) in a single water sample. Enterococci are found in human and animal feces. Any waters that test below the bacteria limit are “safe” for swimming, and any that exceed it present an “unacceptable” health risk. Swimming advisories must be posted at beaches that fail to meet the standard.

The BEACH Act Gets the Ax

Though a swimming advisory or sudden beach closing can put a damper on a sunny summer day, consider the consequences if the ocean were contaminated with high levels of dangerous pathogens and fecal coliforms with no warning or advisory posted to protect beach-goers. With the elimination of the EPA grant program that “informs the public about the risk of exposure to disease-causing microorganisms in the water at the nation’s beaches” in the Obama Administration’s 2013 budget proposal, more Americans may be associating a day at the beach with rashes and diarrhea.

“In this difficult financial climate, the Agency will eliminate the Beaches Grant Program with a reduction of $9.9 million in Fiscal Year (FY) 2013,” the budget proposal states. But according to the San Francisco-based ocean advocacy group Surfrider Foundation (surfrider.org), millions of beach-goers, tourism dollars and jobs will be at risk if the Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health (BEACH) Act of 2000 is cut. In a petition to legislators, the group wrote: “Although hard economic times do make spending choices critical, it isn’t a wise decision to eliminate this $9.9 million program and consequently jeopardize the health of 90 million beach-goers and the $70 billion coastal tourism and recreation economy that they support.”

unsafe for swimming © CSC Temple Univ.

Just two weeks before the 2013 budget proposal, the EPA boasted that “the number of monitored beaches has more than tripled” to over 3,600 in 2010. After the budget cut proposal was made public, however, EPA spokesperson Brendan Gilfillan says: “While beach monitoring continues to be important, well-understood guidelines are in place, and state and local government programs have the technical expertise and procedures to continue beach monitoring without federal support.”

Test Your Own Water?

This year, Florida will receive $516,000 in BEACH grants, California $507,000 and Hawaii $322,000. States may have “technical expertise,” but will they be able to continue testing at the same rate without federal funding?

The Surfrider Foundation believes that without federal funding, many states will severely cut back or even entirely curtail their beach monitoring programs,” says Alexis Henry, communications manager for the Surfrider Foundation. “No water testing results means no health warnings or beach closures when there is pollution and the bacteria levels are high. That will inevitably translate into people inadvertently swimming or surfing in polluted waters and getting sick.”

unsafe for swimming © ETCO

Surfrider, NRDC, Heal the Bay, Clean Water Action, Surfers’ Environmental Alliance and Waterkeeper Alliance are among the many groups fighting to keep beach water testing alive. Thus far, petitions signed by their supporters have inspired 19 senators to compose a letter to the Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies, requesting that they preserve the funding for EPA’s BEACH Act grant program. In the letter, the senators wrote: “Americans deserve to know that the water is safe when they go to the beach. In order to provide this assurance, we write to urge you to fund the BEACH Act grant program in FY 2013 at FY 2012 levels of approximately $9.9 million…We all share the goal of protecting the health of swimmers and other recreational water users. Without adequate funding, many states will eliminate or significantly curtail their beach water quality monitoring programs. With 24,091 beach closures and advisories last year, funding for beach monitoring is as critical as ever.”

New Ways to Keep Beach Water Clean

While preservng the EPA BEACH Act grants would be a public health victory, some contend it still doesn’t address the underlying need for cleaner, safer water. “The first step in this process is ongoing monitoring of rivers, creeks, lakes and shoreline,” says Vivian Marquez, environmental supervisor with the Los Angeles Watershed Protection Program. “Then, implement a best management practice that will successfully reduce the level of bacteria

Currently diverting bacteria from California beaches are low-flow diversion (LFD) structures, which redirect millions of gallons of polluted urban runoff into sanitary sewer systems for treatment every year.

bacteria © Mara Dias/Surfrider Foundation

“The City of Los Angeles has been employing state-of-the-art technology all along the Pacific Coast Highway to address the urban runoff issue plaguing Southland beaches,” states the L.A. Stormwater Program website. “This technology comes in the form of LFD projects. In fact, these LFDs have been so instrumental in improving water quality that Heal the Bay noted in their 2007 Beach Report that LFD projects resulted in long stretches of beaches in our area receiving consistently good grades.”

Green infrastructure projects are also popping up across the nation in an effort to keep recreational waters clean. The EPA defines green infrastructure as “weaving natural processes into the built environment.” These projects, which include porous pavement, green rooftops, ocean-friendly gardens, tree plantings, curbside vegetation and rainwater collection barrels, add a natural aesthetic to communities, reduce heat, air pollution and energy costs and boost economies. NRDC’s “Rooftops to Rivers II” report provides detailed case studies of 14 cities that are incorporating green infrastructure “to save money while delivering significant community benefits.” NRDC deems cities that take on their recommended long-term green infrastructure plan “Emerald Cities.”

Portland, Oregon, took on the unprecedented “Grey to Green Infrastructure” initiative in 2008 and has completed five of the six “Emerald City” criteria. In Portland, curbside plantings reduce rain flow by 88%—enough retention to protect local basements from flooding. And curbside vegetation is one of some 950 green initiatives implemented in the city as of late 2010.

“All these systems help to keep out polluted water…that damages stream banks and degrades fish habitat,” says Dean Marriott, director of Portland’s Bureau of Environmental Services. “Managing stormwater at its source also keeps runoff out of the city’s combined sewer system. This protects the city’s $1.4 billion investment in controlling combined sewer overflows (CSOs) to the Willamette River and Columbia Slough.” Marriott added that CSOs in Portland have been reduced “from an average of 50 events per year (or about 100 days worth of CSOs) to no more than one event every third summer and four events per winter. That dramatic reduction in CSO volume has made the river and slough much safer for recreational users.”

Building a Beach-Friendly City

The sole perfect “six” Emerald City rating belongs to Philadelphia, which, according to “Rooftops to Rivers II,” is “committed to deploying the most comprehensive urban network of green infrastructure in the United States.” In 2007, Philadelphia instituted a tax credit for property owners who construct a green roof and commit to maintaining it for five years. In addition, through the Philadelphia Water Department’s 25-year “Green City, Clean Waters” plan, a CSO reduction in the city will be achieved for billions less than it would through “gray infrastructure” alone, with the additional benefit of improved water quality

In communities yet to be recognized in the “Rooftops to Rivers” report, nonprofits are working to get green infrastructure going. This past March, Save the Sound urged the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to prioritize funding for clean water projects that utilize green infrastructure techniques.

“We believe green infrastructure initiatives, such as green roofs, natural vegetation and permeable pavements, which reduce pollutants from running into our waterways by absorbing rainfall, can be a valuable part of stormwater management,” says Leah Schmalz, director of legislative and legal affairs for Save the Sound. “Connecticut can help protect Long Island Sound from sewage and other harmful pollutants that threaten the beauty and habitat of our waterways.”

And those looking to begin residential green infrastructure projects can find start-to-finish guidance through informative online blogs and how-to sites. One example is Surfrider’s Ocean Friendly Gardens blog, which has plentiful tips for do-it-yourselfers or those who want to be better able to communicate with a professional. Henry believes that over time, ocean conservation projects will improve water quality, though it’s likely to be “a slow and gradual process.”

For now, many who cherish both America’s health and leisurely days at the beach hope to see the BEACH Act of 2000 in 2013.

LINDSEY BLOMBERG is a senior writer with E.