Fourth of July weekend is right there on the horizon, and beach bunnies everywhere are mulling where to drop their towels and umbrellas. Fortunately, they can refer to the Natural Resource Defense Council Testing the Waters report, released today, before making that call. The report is an annual evaluation of water quality based on health advisories at America's beaches, and as it's shown in the past, the nation's beaches are pretty hit-or-miss.
The beaches that have done a good job of both monitoring water quality and promptly issuing advisories got "superstar" status in this year's report. The superstars include Rehoboth and Dewey Beaches in Delaware, Park Point Lafayette Community Club Beach in Minnesota, and Hampton Beach State Park in New Hampshire.
But NRDC also put a lot of beaches in the doghouse. Avalon Beach and Doheny State Beach in California scored poorly because the state has had to repeatedly either close them or issue advisory notices about pollution. Several beaches in the Great Lakes region also earned "repeat offender" status for having the highest number of over-the-limit water samples for four years running. (And many Southern beaches were closed due to the BP oil spill.)
Overall, 2010 was a pretty bad year. There were 24,091 beach closures and health advisories issued by state agencies — the second highest number since the NRDC started producing these reports in 1990. And 8 percent of collected beachwater samples in 2010 exceeded health limits — a slight increase from 7 percent in 2009.
What exactly is the NRDC (and Environmental Protection Agency, which also monitors water quality at beaches) looking for? Bacterial contamination from human and animal waste are of greatest concern because of the health risk, and that's what shows up in the samples.
Big storm events can rapidly flush the nasty stuff that accumulates on city streets—and septic systems—into nearby streams and eventually onto beaches, David Beckman, director of the water program at NRDC, told reporters today in a press briefing. This can lead to high levels of fecal bacteria in coastal waters as well as harmful algae blooms.
Health risks associated with polluted beachwater include flu symptoms and eye and skin irritation, as well as more serious diseases such as hepatitis and gastroenteritis. Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the EPA keep track of these water-borne illnesses related to recreational water use.
If you're concerned about the status of a particular beach, check your state's beach monitoring site (a list of all of state sites can be found here). And if that doesn't appease you, NRDC's Jon Devine advises the ultimate final check: "Use common sense: if the water looks or smells funny, don't go in."