Twice as many US beaches were closed in 2000 than in 1999

Twice as many beaches in the US had to be closed – the majority due to pollution - in 2000 than were in 1999, according to an annual report from NGO the National Resources Defence Council (NRDC).

Over 11,000 beaches were closed in 2000, compared to just over 6,000 in 1999, with the rise largely due to increased monitoring, better testing standards for bacteria and other pathogens, and more complete reporting, says Testing the Waters: A Guide to Beach Water Quality at Vacation Beaches, the 11th annual survey of US beaches. Even more worrying, says the NRDC, is that the number of pollution incidents for which the sources were unknown increased from 40% to 56%.

“We’re seeing a much more realistic picture of the beach water pollution problem now that more states are monitoring and reporting, but we haven’t turned the corner on identifying the sources of pollution and preventing them in the first place,” said Sarah Chasis, an NRDC senior attorney and director of the organisation’s water and coastal programme. “It’s outrageous that more than half of the time local authorities didn’t know where all the pollution was coming from when they had to close a beach or post an advisory.”

Over the 11 years that the NRDC has been reporting on the quality of US beaches, 11 states have initiated or expanded their water quality monitoring, and three states have passed “beach bills” that mandate more regular beach monitoring and public notification. Last year alone, seven states – Alabama, Mississippi, California, Texas, Massachusetts, South Carolina and Florida – increased the number of beaches that they monitor, with US Pacific territory Guam reporting on its water quality for the first time since 1997.

“NRDC’s beach report has pressured states and localities to adopt better monitoring and notification practices and adopt the EPA testing standards, but more still needs to be done,” said Mark Dorfman, the report’s author. “EPA and the states need to effectively implement the new national BEACH Act, and Congress needs to fully fund it. And more needs to be done to clean up the known and unknown pollution sources causing beach closings.”

NRDC also found that the number of state agencies that have adopted at least one of the Environmental Protection Agency’s recommended health standards for swimmer safety increased from 51 in 1999 to 77 in 2000, with elevated bacteria counts accounting for 85% of beach closures and advisories. The most frequent cause of closures and advisories was storm water runoff, leading to more than 4,102 closures or advisories, and breaks in pipelines or sewage treatment plant failures were responsible for more than 2,208 closings and advisories. Six percent of the closings and advisories were precautionary, due to rainfall known to carry pollution into beach water, chemical spills, red tides or strong waves.

One of the worst problems with the quality of water at beaches is the lack of uniformity of monitoring across the country as a whole, which leaves bathers uncertain of the safety of the water in which they are swimming, says the NRDC.

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