The NRDC has been issuing the report for 22 years. 2011 saw the third-highest levels of beach closings and advisory days, for a total of 23,481 days, a 3 percent decrease from 2010. Says the Testing The Waters report:
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 8% in 2011, compared with 8% in 2010 and 7% for the four previous years. In addition, the number of beaches monitored in 2011 increased slightly (2%) from a five-year low in 2010. The largest known source of pollution was stormwater runoff (47%, compared with 36% 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.
Up to 3.5 million people become ill (with stomach flu, skin rashes, pinkeye, respiratory infections, meningitis and hepatitis) from raw sewage from sanitary sewer overflows each year, according to the EPA.But that number should probably be higher as people often become ill from swimming in polluted waters but do not attribute them to be the cause.
How Did Our Public Waters Get So Dirty?
According to the Testing The Waters report, sources of pollution are:
(1) stormwater runoff, (2) sewage overflows and inadequately treated sewage, (3) agricultural runoff, and (4) other sources, such as beachgoers themselves, wildlife, septic systems, and boating waste.
Source number 4 is a reminder that we humans are polluting our beaches in ways that we are not fully aware of.
As Grist’s Philip Bump says about what you can expect if you take a dip in our public waters: “If you leave the house at all this summer, do so in a watertight wetsuit.”
Recommendations To Keep Our Beaches Safe
Some policy changes the NRDC urges are:
(1) Cleaning up polluted runoff by reducing the amount of stormwater flowing into drains in the first place, especially by creating a green infrastructure via such innovations as porous pavement, green roofs, parks, roadside plantings and rain barrels to stop rain where it falls and storing it or letting it filter into the ground.
(2) Instituting better standards to protect beachgoers by urging that the EPA “revise the level of acceptable risk” for people getting gastrointestinal illness from public waters. As the NRDC notes, the EPA recently said that it is “acceptable” for 1 in 28 people to get sick from being at the beach and in the ocean, due to unsafe levels of disease-causing bacteria and viruses. But such a high rate is not acceptable; a rate such as 1 in 100 would be far better for our health.
If these arguments to protect the environment are not enough, there are economic reasons: 85 percent of all tourism revenue comes from coastal states. One reason people like to live there and to visit is precisely because of the beach. As the NRDC points out, closing Lake Michigan beach due to pollution could mean losses of as high as $37,030 per day.
Really, we simply cannot afford dirty beaches!
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Photo of the East River, New York City, by WaveBreaker