More tests, more closed shores

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

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

"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

"Monitoring beaches and finding the problems - as important as that is as a first step - is not the same as tackling or ending those problems," says Daniel Hinerfeld, of the NRDC. His organization's 15th annual report on beach health spotlights current federal rollbacks of programs that help clean US beach water.

The NRDC's recently released report says more support from the Bush administration is needed: "The administration has declined to protect any wetlands and headwaters that filter beach water sources, proposed to lessen requirements for sewage treatment, allowed contaminated storm water from new development ... slashed federal funding for clean-water programs and held up rules that would reduce overflows of raw sewage."

"Now we're at the stage where we have to tell the country, 'Let's gather together to stop those sources of pollution,' rather than just make people aware of them," says Mr. Hinerfeld.

The EPA, for its part, says that $42 million annually in grants to 35 coastal and Great Lakes states over the past five years have made US beaches "more enjoyable for Americans" - in the words of their recent report - by doing more than just issuing closure notices. In North Beach, Maryland; Warren Town Beach, Rhode Island; and Cuyahoga County, Ohio, grant money helped pinpoint sewage or storm-water discharges leading to the movement or repair of the sewer lines and storm outflows.

"At the same time we realize that much more needs to be done, we can't overlook that progress has been made and positive things are happening," says Dale Kemery of the EPA. The current push, he says, is to improve and standardize data-collection and make results available in hours rather than days. New requirements are in place for all states who receive EPA money for more vigorous reporting of problems, he says.

But environmental groups are still sounding the alarm.

"The EPA should be embarrassed that this country doesn't have the standardized beach monitoring requirements and water-quality standards nationally that they have been talking about for 25 years," says Mark Gold, executive director of Heal the Bay, an environmental group in Santa Monica.

Challenges remain at all levels, say Mr. Gold and others. While voluntary measures emphasize what must be done, mandatory measures put immediate pressure on local governments to act, straining already spoken-for revenues.

California leads the charge

Yet some states are making clean beaches a priority. Even in the midst of its own budget crisis, the State of California has allocated more than $80 million for cleaning up the state's most polluted beaches.

"The rest of the country is about where California was five years ago on this issue," says Bruce Reznik, executive director of San Diego Baykeeper. California, one of the first states to monitor its beaches, created statewide water-quality standards and "right to know" pollution warnings, which in turn led to grass-roots activism and millions in state and local funding. Last fall, the City of Los Angeles granted $500 million to tackle urban runoff.

"Cities were monitoring more and going into shock over what pollution had been ignored for years if not decades," says Mr. Reznik. "Now we have spent hundreds of millions for new sewers and storm outflow controls and things are dramatically better than they were five years ago."

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