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More tests, more closed shores

Extensive shoreline water testing resulted in 20,000 days of beach closings in 2004.

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 9, 2005


As white gulls skitter along wet sand, crashing waves muffle the contrary comments of two beachgoers huddled just beyond reach of the sea foam.

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"The water is definitely cleaner here now over past years," says Dana Colvin-Burke, a stay-at-home mom from Culver City, who is crouched on a Homer Simpson beach towel. "In the '90s I wouldn't even go in to wash off my suntan lotion. Now I don't hesitate to swim or body surf - unless there's been a storm."

"[The water's] fine for me, but I am still hesitant to let my little Jesse out there for more than a few minutes without a hot bath," says her friend Marge Downey, referring to her 3-year-old son. She carefully watches beach reports in The Argonaut, a local weekly newspaper. "You can tell they are trying harder, but I'm not sure they've come far enough."

These differing sentiments expressed at the same water's edge here mirror recent findings of several national and local environmental groups assessing the state of the nation's beaches. The clear-as-bottled-water conclusion: 15 years of activist pressure and new laws have led to significantly increased monitoring and cleanup of the country's 95,000 miles of ocean and Great Lakes shorelines.

But an increase of activism and testing has also churned up an awareness of more pollution problems, leading to record numbers of beach closings. Twenty thousand days of closing or beach advisories were recorded in 2004 on US ocean, bay, and Great Lake beaches - with one-third of all beaches being closed at least one day. That represents an eightfold increase over 1991, when beach closings reached only 2,500 days, and a rise of nearly 10 percent over 2003. Experts predict the upward trend will continue.

Better monitoring of beach waters

"We have come a very long way in monitoring beach quality so that more places in America have more and better warning systems," says Rick Wilson of the Surfrider Foundation, which issues a "state of the beach" every year. He and others note the number of monitored beaches has tripled - from 1,021 in 1997 to 3,574 last year. "The flip side of more monitoring is that we are finding more problems," Mr. Wilson says.

Both the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began monitoring programs in the early 1990s, and such efforts have dovetailed in recent years with increased state legislation funds and the federal Beach Act of 2000, which requires states to adopt EPA health standards. Some states (California, Rhode Island, Wisconsin) have fared far better in taking aim at beach pollutants than others (Maryland, Virginia, Michigan, North Carolina) by tightening controls on sewage overflows, polluted runoff, and urban storm water - key sources of the bacteria and toxics that make beaches unfit for use.

But environmental groups complain that too much of the current effort to safeguard beaches depends on volunteers and that state-to-state standards on water quality and notification are inconsistent.

Caught between the assessments are the beachgoing public, which is encountering an increasing number of beach closings, and state officials, who have made great efforts to correct some problems only to be excoriated for not dealing with others.

More needs to be done