WASHINGTON – More beaches were closed to swimmers last year because of unsafe water than at any time in the last 14 years,an environmental group reported Thursday.
Storm water runoff was the main culprit,according to the report,but increased monitoring also found problems that hadn't been reported before.
The number of beach closures and advisories posted to warn beachgoers not to swim in coastal waters that didn't meet safety and health standards increased by 51 percent from 2002 to 2003,according to the report by the Natural Resources Defense Council. The council has done the report for 14 years.
“The more we look,the more we find,” said NRDC project director Nancy Stoner. She blamed the Bush administration for slashing $500 million from the Clean Water State Revolving Fund,which helps municipalities build wastewater plants and fund other pollution controls.
“This administration is making beach monitoring worse,” she said,adding that an effective monitoring program would cost households no more than $2 a year. “We have set a major record,and it's a record we shouldn't be proud of.”
The report,prepared by scientists,lawyers and environmental specialists,found that the number of beach closure and advisory days jumped to more than 18,000 in 2003.
Beach closures mean no one can use a beach. Advisories warn swimmers not to enter the water,Stoner said.
Bacteria levels exceeding seawater quality standards were responsible for 88 percent of closures last year. Precautionary closures after rainfall accounted for 6 percent,while 4 percent were due to sewage treatment and pipe failures.
Swimming in contaminated water is the leading cause of waterborne illnesses,affecting about 7 million people,said Mark Dorfman,the lead researcher,who said he was using statistics from the Centers for Disease Control. Most likely to become ill are children,pregnant women and those with weak immune systems. Illnesses can be fatal.
Beaches in Florida and California had the most closures and advisories,with well over 3,000 in each state. South Carolina saw 593 closures and Washington state nine.
But California's Newport Beach made NRDC's 2004 “Beach Buddies” list for building a new sewage pipe with cameras to flag cracks and leaks,replacing a deteriorated system. Encinitas' beach made the list in 2003. It costs about $1.3 million a year to monitor California's nearly 300 beaches,according to the NRDC.
Each year NRDC recognizes beaches that have significantly improved their efforts by adding them to the Beach Buddies list. Beaches that slow their efforts significantly are included on the “Beach Bums” list.
Stoner said a nationwide increase in beach monitoring and water sampling as well as the failure of local authorities to detect polluting sources such as sewage spills and runoff were responsible for deeming more beaches unsafe.
Stoner,however,said more states are starting surveillance and testing programs by using grants awarded through the federal BEACH Act passed in 2000. Because of such new programs,beach closures in Florida,accounted for more than a third of the total national increase.
The NRDC cited an April 2004 preliminary report of the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy that said ocean-related tourism created 1.5 million jobs and brought $58 billion to the U.S. economy in 2000. Stoner said coastal states could improve their economies by starting water monitoring programs.
“They thought it was better not to look,” she said.
To find state inspection information go to: http://www.nrdc.org/water/oceans/nttw.asp