Written by Jon Devine, Senior Attorney, NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council)
I have a lot of memories of the beach, having grown up in a coastal town in Massachusetts, not far from a bunch of great public beaches. I took swim lessons at Green Harbor, where I swear a basking shark once swam through our group. And my buddies and I used to have hitchhiking races home from Humarock beach — the first one in my neighbor’s pool won. (If my kids are reading this, hitchhiking is something that nobody ever does anymore, especially you.)
In retrospect, we might have been unreasonably afraid of a toothless shark. Especially given what we know now, that shark was far from the scariest thing in the water. What we should’ve been worrying about at the beach were the viruses, bacteria and parasites that lurked in the water.
That’s because the water at the nation’s coastal beaches often is contaminated by these pathogens, which cause a range of waterborne illnesses including stomach flu, skin rashes, pinkeye, ear, nose and throat problems, dysentery, hepatitis, respiratory ailments, neurological disorders and other serious health problems.
I know that’s not the cheeriest news to deliver the week before the Fourth of July, but people need to know about these dangers as they plan beach trips this summer. That’s why NRDC has just released this year’s edition (our 23rd) of Testing the Waters to help families choose the safest and cleanest places to spend their day at the beach.
For better or worse, we found that water quality at America’s beaches has remained largely constant over the last several years. A total of 7 percent of beachwater samples violated national recommended public health standards in 2012, compared to 8 percent in both 2011 and 2010. Overall, the states with the highest rates of reported contamination were Ohio (20 percent of samples), Wisconsin (14 percent) and Minnesota (12 percent). The states with the lowest reported rates of contamination were Delaware (less than 1 percent), New Hampshire (1 percent) and North Carolina (2 percent). We investigated water pollution levels and beach safety at 200 beaches across the country — and the results are all here!
See how your favorite hometown watering hole or vacation spot stacks up with our cool map feature,which allows you to enter your zip code, your town or your favorite beach and find out what the water was like there last year and whether the beach was closed or had a swimming advisory.
How do beaches get polluted in the first place? The leading cause of beach pollution is stormwater runoff. When it rains, the water hitting hard surfaces like buildings, parking lots, and roadways is unable to seep into the ground or be retained by natural vegetation and evaporated back to the atmosphere. Instead, it pours down gutters and out into the roads, where you can see it pick up cigarette butts, animal waste, dirt and grime and oil and grease. In most places, this polluted runoff goes straight to our rivers and streams, where it can make waterways unsafe for swimming or fishing.
The good news is that we know how to deal with this pollution. We can stop stormwater and sewage from polluting beaches by using green infrastructure like porous pavement, green roofs, parks, roadside plantings and rain barrels. These features retain rainwater where it falls, either by storing it, letting it filter into the ground naturally or letting it evaporate. As a result, we get cleaner beaches, less flooding and fewer sewage overflows — not to mention healthier and more beautiful places to live. Several cities are already using green infrastructure and reaping the benefits.
The U.S. EPA has committed to developing important new rules to curb water pollution. These new guidelines have the potential to significantly reduce polluted runoff by requiring the folks responsible for creating stormwater to design their sites to retain the vast majority of it where it falls — and you can help make sure those rules go into effect!
Take Action Now: Tell EPA to put limits on hazardous stormwater pollution and protect America’s beaches!
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