The number of beach closing and advisory days in 2011 reached the third-highest level in 22 years.
Source: National Rescources Defense Council (NRDC)
NRDC’s annual analysis of water quality and public notification data at coastal U.S. beaches found that the number of beach closing and advisory days in 2011 reached the third-highest level in the 22-year history of our report, totaling 23,481 days (a three percent decrease from 2010).
More than two-thirds of closings and advisories were issued because bacteria levels in beachwater exceeded public health standards, indicating the presence of human or animal waste in the water.
The portion of all monitoring samples that exceeded national recommended health standards for designated beach areas remained stable at eight percent in 2011, compared with eight percent in 2010 and seven percent for the four previous years. In addition, the number of beaches monitored in 2011 increased slightly (two percent) from a five-year low in 2010. The largest known source of pollution was stormwater runoff (47 percent, compared with 36 percent last year).
The 2011 results confirm that our nation’s beaches continue to experience significant water pollution that puts swimmers and local economies at risk.
NRDC continues to push for improvements in beachwater quality standards and test methods. Most recently, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed an action that could leave the public inadequately protected if it is not strengthened—one establishing recommended standards for beach officials to use to keep people from being exposed to unsafe levels of disease-causing bacteria and viruses.
While beachwater quality standards are critical, ultimately the most important long-term action is to adopt 21st-century solutions that address the sources of beachwater pollution, particularly stormwater runoff. The most important of these solutions remains incentivizing and implementing green infrastructure in our cities, such as green roofs, porous pavement, and street plantings, which stop rain where it falls.
Green infrastructure effectively reduces the amount of runoff that makes its way into beachwater or triggers harmful sewage overflows, transforming potential beach pollution into a tremendous local water supply resource.
Polluted Beachwater Makes Swimmers Sick and Hurts Coastal Economies
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has estimated that up to 3.5 million people become ill from contact with raw sewage from sanitary sewer overflows each year. Many public health experts believe that the number of illnesses caused by untreated sewage could be much higher than is currently recognized because people who get sick from swimming in polluted recreational waters are not always aware of the cause of their illness and do not report it to doctors or local health officials.
Illnesses associated with polluted beachwater include stomach flu, skin rashes, pinkeye, respiratory infections, meningitis, and hepatitis. Children are especially vulnerable, perhaps because they tend to submerge their heads more often than adults and are more likely to swallow water when swimming. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded that the incidence of infections associated with recreational water use has steadily increased over the past several decades: one study found that swimmers at polluted beaches in the Great Lakes region were more likely to have gastrointestinal illnesses than nonswimmers; another study found that fecal contamination at Los Angeles and Orange County beaches caused between 627,800 and 1,479,200 excess gastrointestinal illnesses each year.
Our coasts provide more than just local recreation—approximately 85 percent of all U.S. tourism revenue is received in coastal states. According to a 2009 report by the National Ocean Economics Program, the nation’s shoreline-adjacent counties contributed $5.7 trillion to the nation’s gross domestic product and 48.6 million jobs. With respect to beaches specifically, economists estimate that a typical swimming day is worth approximately $35 to each individual, so depending on the number of potential visitors to a beach, the “consumer surplus” loss on a day that the beach is closed or under advisory for water quality problems can be quite significant. For example, one study estimated that economic losses as a result of closing a Lake Michigan beach due to pollution could be as high as $37,030 per day. Similarly, the Los Angeles/Orange County study mentioned above concluded that the public health cost of the excess gastrointestinal illnesses caused by poor water quality was $21 million to $51 million per year.