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Natural Resources Defense Council's Report

21st annual vacation beach water quality report released

Jun 30, 2011

HONOLULU, HAWAII – Pollution from stormwater runoff and sewage overflows continue to plague America’s beaches, contributing to 4,215 closing and advisory days in Hawaii and the second-highest number of closing and advisory days nationwide in more than two decades last year, according to the 21st annual beachwater quality report released today by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

“America’s beaches have long suffered from pollution – the difference is now we know what to do about it,” said NRDC senior attorney Jon Devine. “By making our communities literally greener on land – we can make the water at the beach cleaner. In the years to come, there’s no reason we can’t reverse this dirty legacy.”

In its 21st year, NRDC’s annual report – Testing the Waters: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches – analyzes government data on beachwater testing results from 2010 at more than 3,000 beach testing locations nationwide. The report confirms that last year, our nation’s beachwater continued to suffer from serious contamination – including oil, and human and animal waste – and a concerted effort to control future pollution is required.

"Clean beachwater is essential to Hawaii's economy, way of life, and our fragile marine environment," said Robert D. Harris, Director of the Sierra Club, Hawaii Chapter. "While some positive steps are being taken, like the recent sewage settlement with the City and County of Honolulu, today's report demonstrates that Hawaii has more to do."


Closing and advisory days at America’s beaches spiked to the second-highest level in the 21 years since NRDC began compiling this report at 24,091 days, a 29 percent increase from the previous year. The increase is largely because of heavy rainfall in Hawaii, contamination from unidentified sources in California, and oil washing up in the Gulf of Mexico from the BP disaster.

In Hawaii,there were 4,215 closing and advisory days last year, a sharp increase from 2,352 days in 2009. In Hawaii, most closing and advisory days were the result of "brown water advisories" caused by heavy rainfall.

The large majority of closing and advisory days nationwide, 70 percent, were issued because testing revealed indicator bacteria levels in the water that exceeded health standards, indicating the presence of human or animal waste. Stormwater runoff was the primary known source of known pollution nationwide, consistent with past years, indicating the problem has not been sufficiently addressed at the national level. Sewage overflows were also a contributor.

This year’s report found that water quality at America’s beaches remained largely steady, with 8 percent of beachwater samples nationwide exceeding public health standards in 2010, compared to 7 percent for the previous four years. In Hawaii, the percentage of health standard exceedances held steady (3%) in 2010 from the previous year. "While Hawaii was ranked 4th overall in beachwater quality, the high number of closings and advisories demonstrates more action can be taken," said Harris. "For example, wastewater plumes off the island of Maui have been identified as a result of municipal wastewater being injected into wells. Plainly, as a state, we need to do a better job of protecting our fragile marine environment for the enjoyment of residents and tourists alike."

Under the federal BEACH Act, states regularly test their beachwater for bacteria found in human and animal waste. These bacteria indicate the presence of pathogens. When beach managers determine that water contamination exceeds health standards – or in some cases when a state suspects levels would exceed standards, such as after heavy rain – they notify the public through beach closures or advisories.

Beachwater pollution nationwide causes a range of waterborne illnesses in swimmers including stomach flu, skin rashes, pinkeye, ear, nose and throat problems, dysentery, hepatitis, respiratory ailments, neurological disorders and other serious health problems. For senior citizens, small children and people with weak immune systems, the results can be fatal. The incidence of infections has been steadily growing over the past several decades, and with coastal populations growing it is reasonable to expect this upward trend to continue until the pollution sources are addressed.


NRDC awarded “Superstar Beach” status to four U.S. beaches featured in our 5-star rating guide. No Hawaii beach was chosen. These beaches deserve special notice for not only receiving a 5-star rating this year, but for having perfect testing results for the past three years, indicating a history of very good water quality. Those beaches are:

Delaware: Rehoboth Beach-Rehoboth Avenue Beach, in Sussex County
Delaware: Dewey Beach, in Sussex County
Minnesota: Park Point Lafayette Community Club Beach, in St. Louis County
New Hampshire: Hampton Beach State Park in Rockingham County
NRDC’s star-criteria system awards up to five stars to each of the 200 popular beaches in our ratings guide. Stars are earned for exceeding health standards less than 5 percent of the time last year and over the last three years, and for the following best practices: testing more than once a week, notifying the public promptly when tests reveal bacteria levels exceeding health standards, and posting closings and advisories both online and at the beach.


EPA estimates that more than 10 trillion gallons of untreated stormwater make their way into our surface waters each year, and there are 850 billion gallons of wastewater, which includes sewage and stormwater, released in combined sewer overflows annually.

The best way to keep this pollution out of America’s beachwater is to prevent it from the start by investing in smarter, greener infrastructure on land – like porous pavement, green roofs, parks, roadside plantings and rain barrels – that makes a real difference in the water.

Green infrastructure stops rain where it falls, storing it or letting it filter back into the ground naturally. This keeps it from running off dirty streets and carrying pollution to the beach. And it keeps it from overloading sewage systems and triggering overflows.

These smarter water practices on land not only prevent pollution at the beach – they beautify neighborhoods, cool and cleanse the air, reduce asthma and heat-related illnesses, save on heating and cooling energy costs, boost economies and support American jobs at the same time.

Cities nationwide are already starting to embrace these practices at the local level. Now, our federal government has significant opportunities to increase its prevalence on the national level. Most importantly, EPA has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to expand the use of green infrastructure in communities nationwide by overhauling its national rules designed to tackle runoff pollution. EPA will propose new rules later this year.

By embracing green infrastructure at a national scale, the government can significantly clean up the water at America’s beaches for the future.

21st annual vacation beach water quality report released
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