The Natural Resources Defense Council found that although the number of days American beaches were closed or posted with advisories because of contaminated water dropped 3% last year, they were at their third-highest level in 22 years.
California registered a slight increase in beach closures and advisories in 2011, most of them in response to tests revealing elevated bacteria counts, according to the group’s annual “Testing the Waters” report.
“We have an ongoing legacy of pollution at our beaches, and the problem is not going away,” said Noah Garrison, an attorney with the environmental group’s national water program. “We need to be doing more to solve the problem.”
The top source of contamination is runoff swept into the ocean by rainfall or irrigation, accounting for about 47% of the beach pollution last year. Beaches along the Gulf of Mexico continued to be hit with closures and advisories related to the 2010 BP oil spill.
The report analyzed bacterial test results and public advisories from more than 3,000 beaches in 30 coastal and Great Lakes states. A high bacteria count indicates beach water is likely to harbor pathogens that can sicken swimmers — causing skin rashes, stomach and respiratory illnesses, and other infections. Interactive maps in the report allow readers to search by ZIP Code to find out how their favorite beach measures up.
The states with the cleanest beaches in 2011 were Delaware, New Hampshire, North Carolina, New Jersey and Florida. The most contaminated were Louisiana, Ohio and Illinois.
California, which accounted for 25% of the nation’s beach closures and advisories, ranked 21st out of the 30 states in the number of beach water tests that flunked federal health standards.
Two Southern California beaches made the report’s list of 15 “repeat offenders” because of their persistent pollution problems: Avalon Beach on Catalina Island and Doheny State Beach in Dana Point. Three earned a spot on the nation’s one dozen “5 star” beaches with outstanding water quality: Newport Beach, Bolsa Chica State Beach and Huntington State Beach.
The report calls on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to strengthen a new set of beach water quality standards it is set to finalize this fall. Environmental groups have criticized some of its provisions as weaker at protecting swimmers from contaminated water than the 1986 rules they replace.
To curb beach pollution in the long term, the report says, coastal states must address the root cause and build more “green infrastructure” to absorb polluted runoff. Projects could include rain-capturing barrels, porous pavement that allows water to filter into the ground, and facilities that divert and treat runoff before it reaches the ocean.