October 6, 2001
Reporting on the state of U.S. beaches, the National Resources Defense Council released a report, “Testing the Waters: A Guide to Beach Water Quality at Vacation Beaches,” which cited twice as many beach closures and advisories last year as in 1999.
California led the nation in closures and advisories with 5,780, compared to 3,547 in 1999.
According to the NRDC, although some states experienced heavy rainfall, prompting more closings and advisories, most of the rise in closings and advisories followed increased monitoring, better testing standards for bacteria and other pathogens, and better reporting. There were 11,270 closings and advisories in 2000 compared to 6,160 beach closings and advisories in 1999, nationwide, said NRDC.
This year’s report also revealed that the number of beaches reporting pollution problems of an unknown source jumped from 40 percent in 1999 to 56 percent in 2000.
California’s dramatic rise in beach closures and advisories correlates directly with the implementation of AB411, a beach monitoring law that requires weekly testing of the state’s beach water quality. Beginning in 1999, the state’s Department of Health monitored all beaches with more than 50,000 annual visitors or with adjacent storm drains flowing throughout the summer. The agency tested for bacteria and other pathogens. Closures or advisories were issued for beaches that failed to meet the state’s standards for total coliform, fecal coliform or enterococcus, and the public was promptly notified.
NRDC said better monitoring has led to a more comprehensive picture of beach water quality and was bound to reveal a grimmer picture of pollution problems. Senior attorney David Beckman, who directs the Coastal Water Quality Project in NRDC’s Los Angeles office, noted that the rise in closures and advisories increases the urgency of identifying and cleaning up the sources of pollution. “The staggering number of closures and advisories confirms that when it comes to beach pollution, the more you look, the more you find,” said Beckman. “It is imperative that we protect our state’s recreational beaches with purpose and resolve equal to the magnitude of this very serious problem.”
In 2000, Los Angeles County (including Long Beach) reported monitoring 17 beaches daily and at least 20 others a minimum of once per week. The city of Long Beach monitors an additional 26 beaches once per week. Ninety-two percent of the county’s 1,266 closings/advisories were due to elevated bacteria of undetermined causes. The rest were due primarily to general rain advisories and known sewage discharges. General rain advisories of 72 hours each are issued in Los Angeles County following 0.05 to 0.1 inches of rain. These advisories affect all beaches.
Storm water runoff continues to be the largest source of pollution in Santa Monica Bay, and a predominant cause of beach closures, according to the NRDC. Experts now consider Los Angeles to have one of the worst Storm water problems in the nation. To increase compliance and enforcement efforts, NRDC filed an administrative petition with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, contending that the State Water Resources Control Board’s failure to adequately enforce Storm water requirements is unlawful under the federal Clean Water Act. EPA is considering the petition, which is one of the first in the nation to address a state’s failure to enforce runoff rules. An immediate result of the petition promises to alleviate some of the problem: Gov. Gray Davis has provided first-time funding of $5 million to increase the board’s staffing on Storm water issues across the state.
Another recent development in the Los Angeles region concerns a new water board program to implement structural “best management” practices as part of all major new and redevelopment projects in the county. The program requirements are based on a settlement of a citizen enforcement action against the county of Los Angeles brought by NRDC and Santa Monica BayKeeper. The requirements, which would apply to all 88 cities in the Los Angeles region, mandate that the runoff from most storm events in the area receive some treatment or infiltration before being discharged to the region’s storm drain system.
The city of Santa Monica has taken a strong step forward in addressing Southern California’s chronic beach pollution problem, said NRDC. The city recently unveiled a state-of-the-art Storm water treatment facility near its famed pier and beaches. The facility will treat some 500,000 gallons of dry-weather runoff water, as well as some wet-weather runoff, that now goes directly into Santa Monica Bay through storm drains. Once treated, the runoff will be suitable for reuse for landscape irrigation and other purposes. “Innovative treatment options are an important part of the solution to the beach pollution problem,” said NRDC attorney Heather Hoecherl. “Santa Monica deserves credit for taking the lead.”
In 2000, Orange County monitored a total of 27 beaches. Fourteen were monitored once a week; six were monitored twice a week; and seven were monitored three times a week. More than three quarters of the 881 closings and advisories (a 75 percent increase from 1999) were caused by elevated bacteria from unknown sources. General rain advisories of 72 hours each are issued in Orange County following 0.2 inches of rain. These advisories affect all beaches.
Around the state, San Diego County reported the highest number of closings/advisories followed by Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Orange, Ventura, San Mateo, Santa Cruz, Monterey, Sonoma, San Francisco, San Luis Obispo and Mendocino counties.
Contra Costa, Del Norte and Marin counties, as well as the California State Park System and the National Park Service in Marin County, have not responded to EPA or NRDC surveys for the past two years.
States doing better job of monitoring
Over the 11 years since NRDC began publishing its annual beach report, coastal states have improved monitoring, testing and notification practices — especially states that NRDC labeled “beach bums” for poor monitoring and notification practices.
Eleven states have initiated or expanded monitoring programs: Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Maine, Massachusetts, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina and Texas. Additionally, California, Massachusetts and Florida have passed “beach bills” that mandate more regular beach monitoring and public notification.
Last year, several states increased the number of beaches they monitor. Alabama, Mississippi, California, Texas, Massachusetts, South Carolina and Florida all reported monitoring more sites. Meanwhile, Guam — a U.S. territory that had not reported on its beach water quality since 1997 — reported 1,691 closings and advisories.
Neither Louisiana or Oregon state had a regular monitoring or public notification program in 2000 and were designated “beach bums” by the NRDC.
NRDC also found that the number of state agencies that have adopted at least one of the EPA’s recommended health standards for swimmer safety increased from 51 in 1999 to 77 in 2000. But better standards and more frequent monitoring have revealed that beach pollution is more extensive than realized. Elevated bacteria counts that exceeded swimmer safety standards accounted for 85 percent of the monitored beaches’ closings and advisories. NRDC projects that high bacteria counts will prove to be a growing problem as more states adopt the stricter EPA testing standards.
A new national law encourages states to establish monitoring programs for water quality on their beaches and to promptly warn the public if harmful bacteria levels exceed acceptable health standards. States have to meet EPA standards under the law to receive federal funding for their beach monitoring and public notification programs. The law also requires all coastal states to adopt within three years health standards for beach water quality that are consistent with EPA’s criteria under the Clean Water Act, according to NRDC.