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Beach report sees more pollution problems

Heat Wave Breaks On California Coast
Newport Beach, Calif., seen here on a foggy day, was cited as a "beach buddy" by the Natural Resources Defense Council.David Mcnew / Getty Images
/ Source: staff and news service reports

The number of days that beaches closed or posted warnings because of pollution rose sharply in 2003 due to more rainfall, increased monitoring and tougher standards, according to an annual beach report by an environmental group.

There were 18,284 days of beach closures and advisories nationwide in 2003, an increase of 51 percent — or 6,206 days — from 2002, according to the 14th annual beach report by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“We’re doing better monitoring for beachwater pollution, but we’re also finding more beachwater pollution,” said Nancy Stoner, director of NRDC’s Clean Water Project. “People have more information. They’re less likely to be swimming in dangerous waters. But now we can’t ignore this problem as we have in the past. We know that it’s a very significant problem.”

The NRDC also found that local authorities did not know the sources of pollution tied to 68 percent of the closing and advisory days in 2003 -- the highest rate of "unknown sources" in the 14 years of beach reports.

Sewage and stormwater
Most beachwater pollution comes from sewage and contaminated stormwater. High bacteria levels from human or animal waste prompted 88 percent of the closing and advisory days in 2003. Swimming in such polluted water can cause gastroenteritis and other problems.

Released Thursday, the report tallied data from state and local officials and the Environmental Protection Agency. It said that the number of beach closures and advisory days was higher in 2003 than in any year since NRDC began its annual reports. In the mid-90s the report typically found some 2,500 closures per year.

Dirty runoff and stormwater led to 2,616 closing and advisory days in 2003, and sewage spills and overflows accounted for more than 1,820 closings and advisories

The NRDC said stormwater and polluted runoff are potential problems at more than half of all reported beaches with information on pollution sources, and 46 percent of participating beaches reported sewage as a pollution source.

The Bush administration, and especially the EPA, was criticized in the report for what the NRDC said were attempts to undermine stormwater and sewage runoff rules.

Buddies and bums
The NRDC commended four areas as "beach buddies" for monitoring their beachwater regularly, closing beaches or notifying the public when at least one of EPA’s standards are exceeded and taking significant steps to reduce pollution:

  • Newport Beach, Calif.
  • Willard Beach in South Portland, Maine
  • Ocean City, Md.
  • Warren Town Beach, R.I.

The report also criticized four areas as "beach bums," saying they are not regularly monitored for swimmer safety, have no program to notify the public if health standards are exceeded and have either known pollution sources near the beach or volunteer monitoring data showing high bacterial levels:

  • Bar Harbor, Maine
  • Kennebunkport, Maine
  • St. Lawrence County, N.Y.
  • Frenchman’s Bar in Vancouver, Wash.

Data by state
Florida accounted for more than one-third of the increase in closure and advisory days, the report said. That’s partly because the state increased its monitoring frequency and adopted EPA health standards for the first full year.

Other states with large increases in closing and advisory days: Delaware, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Rhode Island and South Carolina.

The overall increase in monitoring in 2003 was due, in part, to more federal funding triggered by the 2000 Beaches Environmental Assessment, Closure and Health Act, NRDC said.

Stoner warned that beach pollution will only worsen unless local, state and federal officials increase funding and focus on good treatment standards for sewage and stormwater.

States with the most stormwater pollution sources, according to the NRDC, are:

  • California
  • Florida
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • New Jersey
  • New York.

States with the most sewage pollution sources are:

  • California
  • Connecticut
  • Florida
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • New York

The full report is online at