High tide for beach closings

New research helps better pinpoint causes of water pollution at US beaches.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Each year tens of millions of people plop onto America's beaches to bask and bake in the sun. But the question they increasingly face is: "Do I dare go into the water?"

Not because it's too cold or because they fear an encounter with "Jaws," but because it might just be too dirty.

Consider:

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• Over the past decade, signs like "Danger. Beach Closed" have become more common as the number of beach closings and water-quality advisories has increased more than fourfold.

• Those numbers are likely to rise even more this summer as beach water comes under a new federal microscope. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will begin enforcing a 2000 revision of the Clean Water Act that requires states to monitor water quality at many more beaches and more frequently than at present - and to adopt more rigorous and uniform testing standards.

• As coastal development continues to spread in the United States, beaches may become more polluted - not just from runoff, but also from contaminated groundwater, according to new research. That finding, if confirmed by further research, could provide new insights into how to battle beach pollution, which has baffled researchers up to now. In one survey, nearly two-thirds of beach closures and advisories in 2002 were chalked up to "unknown sources."

In fact, the entire subject of beach pollution remains murky, largely because of a lack of data. For example: Of the 5,792 beaches in 30 states (including the Great Lakes states) tracked by the EPA, just 56 percent are monitored. And as of the end of April, only nine of those states had adopted the monitoring standards that EPA expects to impose by month's end.

So while the US has made progress in cleaning up some pollution, and its beaches remain cleaner than those of many developing nations, researchers can only guess whether - and how rapidly - the overall picture is deteriorating.

"The beach-water situation nationally is probably worse or maybe the same, but it's unlikely to be getting better," says Mark Gold, executive director of Heal the Bay, a Santa Monica group that independently grades California beach waters. "The key reason is the nation's lack of progress in dealing with runoff and nonpoint-source pollution," such as lawn fertilizer, pet waste, and other pollutants.

Coastal waters are generally in "fair to poor condition," says the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an environmental lobbying group that has focused on beach-water quality. Another indicator: Only 45 percent of lakes, rivers, and coastal waters monitored by states were clean enough for fishing or swimming in 2000, according to EPA testimony before Congress in 2002. Environmental critics like the NRDC say the Bush administration has undercut beach-water quality with a series of moves that loosen requirements for sewage treatment.

But the picture isn't all gloomy. Take the beach-closing data. It's true that in 2002, the latest year for which the NRDC has data, there were 12,184 days of closings and advisories. That was close to the previous year's record and more than four times the total a decade earlier. But even the NRDC says that much of the increase is due to better testing and reporting.

California beach waters have improved under intensive efforts in recent years to divert runoff to sewage plants, Dr. Gold says. And pollution- control efforts under the Clean Water Act have improved the overall water quality in the US over the past 30 years, most experts agree. During the '90s, for instance, less sewage and overflow entered US coastal waters because cities upgraded treatment plants and extended sewage discharge pipes farther offshore.

Yet coastal areas are under growing pressure from residential and commercial development. In 1996, just over half the US population lived in such areas and by 2015, they'll add another 25 million people, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates.

This intense development creates an increasing quantity of pesticides, oil, and other nonpoint-source pollutants that get washed into the ocean. Meanwhile, coastal wetlands that once filtered this runoff have been decimated by the same development. Southern California has lost 70 to 75 percent of its historical coastal wetlands, according to the California Coastal Conservancy, a state agency. And as cities like Los Angeles have channeled runoff, fewer pollutants are absorbed into remaining wetlands and instead are washed into the ocean and then onto the beach.

Five years ago, a combination of such factors hit Huntington Beach, one of America's most popular and surfable beaches. Clean for years, the Orange County, Calif., beach was closed much of that summer by bad water. Area businesses lost millions of dollars and beachgoers complained bitterly, sparking a search for answers.

That meant putting Ken Theisen, one of a growing number of beach-water sleuths, on the case. An environmental scientist for the Santa Ana region of the California Regional Water Quality Control Board, he tracked down sewage and other pollution, sending TV cameras into sewers to spot leaky pipes that municipalities could then patch. In all, he identified 2.5 million gallons of daily runoff full of fertilizer and pet waste, along the eight-mile beach, that has since been diverted to sewage treatment.

Last year, for the first time in several years, Huntington was not ranked among the state's Top 10 "beach bummers," as rated by Heal the Bay. Yet Dr. Theisen is flummoxed by a four-mile stretch rated only a "C" by Heal the Bay.

"We've reduced pollutants on this beach by 90 percent since 1999 ... and still we've got a problem," he says. "There are times where, yes, I've pulled my hair out wondering what the heck can this be?" During low tides each month, the beach is often inexplicably inundated with bacteria and must be closed - although there is no apparent source for the sewage pollution.

It's part of a nationwide mystery. The NRDC survey found that "unknown sources" were responsible for 62 percent of the beach closings and advisories in 2002. By contrast, polluted runoff caused 29 percent.

Enter another scientific sleuth, Alexandria Boehm, an avid surfer and relentless research scientist. At one point in her zeal to solve the Huntington mystery, she even tasted suspect groundwater to search for clues.

"Yeah, it was risky, but sometimes we've got to have fun," says the Stanford University environmental engineer. "It was a dare by some of my students. Actually, it tasted really sweet."

After spending July evenings in the Huntington surf collecting 11 tons of water from different depths, she and colleagues began to unravel the mystery. In a paper published in May in an academic journal, the group pointed to the possibility that contaminated groundwater beneath the beach could be the culprit. High in nitrates, which could support bacteria growth, it was being sucked through the sand and into the surf zone by low tides that created a kind of hydrologic pump.

Theisen and others say they aren't convinced that low-tide groundwater flow is the culprit. Most testing of groundwater under the beach hasn't shown high bacteria counts, he says.

But others contend Dr. Boehm's findings may help explain otherwise inexplicably polluted water. "On the Outer Banks [of North Carolina], we have these multimillion dollar houses near beaches, many of them on septic systems," says Rachel Noble, marine biologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "You could have a situation where groundwater is leached out through the sand at a beach through the tidal cycle." She is working to develop biological tracers of contaminants.

Such research is encouraging to Stephen Leatherman, director of the laboratory for coastal research at Florida International University in Miami. He's established the National Healthy Beaches Campaign, a three-year-old project about to release the names of 80 beaches that his group can "certify" as "healthy beaches." "Dr. Beach," as students sometimes call him, has traveled to more than 1,000 US beaches and many abroad.

Despite his concerns about overdevelopment, he says US beaches still are among the cleanest he's seen in the world.

He recalls a resort on an island off the coast of Thailand. One of the hotel rules, he says, restricted guests from flushing toilet paper. Finding that odd, he traced the sewage lagoon out back to a river that wound its way to the ocean. The reason for the antiflush rule, he speculates, was that it would wash back onto the beach - a visible indicator of otherwise hidden pollution. "It looked like a beautiful tropical paradise. But that stuff was going straight out into the water. I didn't go swimming."

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