Hitting the beach for the Fourth of July? How to check a beach's water safety.

Just in time for the Fourth of July, a report on the environmental quality of America's beaches. Does your beach get five stars?

By , Staff writer

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    Children enter the water on June 29 at Santa Monica Beach in Santa Monica, Calif. A new report from the National Resources Defense Council, just in time for Fourth of July trips to the beach, gives the water safety for the 200 most popular beaches in America.
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Beachgoing and resort attendance is big business in America – especially on Fourth of July weekend. Some 450 million people will visit over 3,000 US beaches this year, says David Beckman, water program director for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

And now, before you hit the sand, you can find out if your beach of choice is closed and what the quality of the water will be like.

The NRDC has just released its 21st annual beach report, “Testing the Waters: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches,” an analysis of water quality and public notification data at US beaches. “We hope the takeaway from this report is for people to know: there is a way to check the safety of beaches before using them,” says Mr. Beckman.

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The good news is, beaches are getting cleaner. Notwithstanding individual events like the BP oil spill, analysts say, beach health overall has gotten steadily better for several years – as has public understanding of the issue.

“Beach monitoring and beach quality have received steady and persistent attention from the press, the public, and groups like NRDC,” says Elizabeth Alm, a microbiologist at Central Michigan University.

Is your beach a “Superstar”?

The NRDC has awarded “Superstar” status to four beaches that have won five stars every year for the past three years: two in Delaware and one each in Minnesota and New Hampshire. At the other end of the public health spectrum are the Top 10 Repeat Offender beaches. California claims the top three places on that list.

In addition to calling out those 14 winners and losers, the report evaluates the 200 most popular beaches in the US, highlighting which surf-and-sand spots meet – or don’t meet – acceptable health standards for bacteria and other water-borne pathogens that can lurk beneath the surface.

For those headed to the Gulf this weekend, the NRDC website provides a state-by-state examination of closures, oil spill notices and advisories at Gulf Coast beaches from the beginning of the oil spill through June 15. As of that date, four stretches of Louisiana beach have yet to open since the spill, and three beaches in Florida have remained under oil spill notice.

There have been 9,474 days of oil-related beach notices, advisories and closures at Gulf Coast beaches, with Louisiana being hit the hardest (3,420) followed by Florida (2,245), Mississippi (2,148) and Alabama (1,661).

Overall, beach closing and advisories were almost 30 percent in 2010 over 2009. Nationwide in 2010, beaches were closed for a total of 24,091 days, an increase due largely to heavy rainfall in Hawaii, contamination from unidentified sources in California, and oil washing up in the Gulf of Mexico from the BP oil spill disaster, the report says.

Several academics have applauded the report. “It’s very valuable in that it raises public awareness and attempts to get its arms around a very amorphous problem,” says Frank Galgano, associate professor of geography and the environment at Villanova University. “Giving lists of where people can go to see which beaches have which problems is also a very helpful service.”

Officials hope the report is useful in two ways: one as a user guide and two as community-wide consciousness raiser on what can be done to lessen the problem.

Solving the problems

“Americans have learned a lot, as a society, about how to deal with this kind of pollution – and know exactly what to do to lower it,” says Mr. Beckman.

The report details green-infrastructure solutions for runoff – things like porous pavement, roofs and rain barrels that collect runoff, parks and roadside plantings. All of these help to stop rain where it falls – either by storing it or letting it filter back into the ground – thus keeping it from washing down dirty streets and into the ocean.

The NRDC hopes that when the Environmental Protection Agency proposes new national rules to tackle runoff pollution, which it is expected to do later this year, the EPA will seize “a once-in-a-generation opportunity to expand the use of green infrastructure in communities nationwide.”

“Certainly, some communities have taken the steps necessary to improve the quality of their beaches,” Professor Alm notes. “But it requires continuous attention and infusions of money. [Beaches] do not remain the same from year to year, and monitoring and remediation strategies need to remain flexible and ready to respond to these changes.”

She adds, “Beaches are highly dynamic systems.”

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