July 29, 2009
Testing the Waters 2009
NRDC's annual survey of water quality and public notification at U.S. beaches finds that pollution caused the number of beach closings and advisories to hit their fourth-highest level in the 19-year history of the report.
The number of 2008 closing and advisory days at ocean, bay and Great Lakes beaches topped 20,000 for the fourth consecutive year, confirming that our nation's beaches continue to suffer from serious water pollution that puts swimmers at risk.
Aging and poorly designed sewage and stormwater systems hold much of the blame for beachwater pollution. Even in the relatively dry 2008 beach season, stormwater runoff contributed to two-thirds of the closing/advisory days in which a contamination source was reported. Unknown sources of pollution caused nearly 13,000 closing and advisory days.
Despite these statistics, promising developments could improve the state of water monitoring at U.S. beaches. As a result of legal pressure from NRDC, the Environmental Protection Agency has agreed to update its 20-year-old beachwater quality standards by 2012. The legal settlement requires EPA to:
* Conduct new health studies and swimmer surveys.
The illnesses include conditions such as skin rashes, pinkeye, respiratory infections, meningitis and hepatitis. Current standards are focused on gastrointestinal illnesses such as the stomach flu. Current water quality tests also take 24 hours or more to produce results, putting beachgoers at serious risk. The EPA's changes are a much-needed step toward promoting safer and healthier beaches along U.S. coastlines.
But the settlement doesn't actually require local beach officials to use the rapid-testing methods developed by EPA. That's one big reason that NRDC is urging Congress to pass the Clean Coastal Environment and Public Health Act, which would require states to begin using rapid-water tests within one year of EPA validation. The measure would also authorize funding for studies that identify the sources of beachwater pollution so that they can be cleaned up. Passing the act would benefit the health of beaches and the people who enjoy them while bolstering coastal economies that depend on beaches for tourism revenue.
However, the best way to protect beachgoers from water contamination is to prevent it by implementing and enforcing better controls on pollution sources. Stormwater runoff pollution can be reduced by using low-impact development techniques in communities to retain and filter rainwater where it falls and let it soak back into the ground, rather than dumping it into waterways. This includes strategically placed rain gardens in yards, tree boxes along city sidewalks, green roofs that use absorbent vegetation on top of buildings, and permeable pavement that allows water to penetrate the material, instead of asphalt or concrete. By capturing and storing stormwater in rain barrels, or cisterns, we can also reuse it for irrigation or other non-potable uses.
For the first time ever, Testing the Waters this year explores the effects of climate change on beachwater quality, revealing that climate change is expected to make pollution worse. The combined effects of more frequent and intense rainstorms and temperature increases will lead to increased stormwater runoff, combined sewer overflows and pathogens in nearby waterways. In particular, climate change is anticipated to affect the presence of microbes that cause stomach flu, diarrhea, skin rashes and neurological and blood infections in America's beachwater, according to the report. The American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES) would help communities prepare for the impacts of climate change on coastal communities, such as flooding, sea level rise, increased stormwater pollution and sewer overflows, in addition to capping global warming pollution.
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