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US Beach Report Gives Bad News to American Vacationers - 2002-08-02

As millions of Americans head to the beach this summer, they might encounter something they had not expected. The water is too polluted for swimming. A new survey of American beaches finds that offshore contaminants have increased significantly in recent years, turning many of these popular vacation spots into public health hazards.

The Natural Resources Defense Council would like you to read their annual report "Testing the Waters: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches" before wading into the water at the beach.

Author Sarah Chasis says the survey details 13,410 thousand beach closures and advisories in 2001, compared to 11,270 in 2000, an increase of nearly 20 percent over the previous year. "The overwhelming majority of these closings was due to monitoring results showing elevated bacteria levels in the water and these elevated bacteria levels indicate the presence of human or animal waste. There are of course a number of studies that show that people can get sick swimming in sewage polluted waters. The bottom of our report is this: We don't let our kids play in garbage dumps. Why should we let our children swim in sewage? It doesn't have to be that way," she says.

The survey looks at 2,100 American beaches. The Natural Resources Defense Council singles out 'beach buddies', those communities doing a good job at monitoring water quality, notifying the public and taking steps to reduce pollution. It also lists 'beach bums', those communities that do not have water quality programs in place.

Among the 70 beach bums in the report is the West Coast State of Oregon, which does not regularly monitor beach water for swimmer safety or notify the public when water quality violates health standards. "Specifically you would find that our waters are cold compared to other states and the usage of our waters would be relatively limited. Therefore when you look at the other (state) issues that we had to face, the recreational piece most certainly fell rather low on the priority list, says Mike Holcomb, who is with the Oregon Department of Human Services, the state agency that has recently begun to develop a beach-monitoring program.

"We're working with any one who is willing to assist us, including volunteers. And with that in mind, I would say within the next year we should have a solid program in place and hopefully the label 'beach bum' will no longer be used."

Key West, Florida named in the Natural Resources Defense Council survey in 1997 as a beach bum was on this year's list as a beach buddy. David Fernandez, Director of Utilities for the City, says Key West attacked the problem from its source by replacing old sewer lines and reducing sewage discharges. "We are on the cutting edge of waste water management now where we were probably in the dark ages back in 1997," he says. "We now test private property and public sewer systems on an on-going basis. Approximately 51 percent of the private property owners have had to replace their sewer lines as well. And, we're moving forward with storm water projects also, [storm water has] a tendency to contaminate near shore waters."

Skirble: "Why does this move make sense for Key West?"
Fernandez: "In addition to protecting the environment for all of us, Key West's livelihood is based on our surrounding waters. The tourists enjoy coming to Key West for a number of reasons, but one of them is to enjoy our natural resources."
Skirble: "So you're saying that it makes public health sense and also economic sense."
Fernandez: "Absolutely!"

Author Sarah Chasis says while Key West stands out as a model for other coastal communities, much work still needs to be done elsewhere to stop pollution from sewage spills, urban and agricultural runoff. "We need to take steps, and we need not just state and local authorities to take steps such as Key West has done which is certainly important but we need national standards," she says. "So if you are swimming in California or Florida or New York you can be afforded the same level of protection."

Congress took action to remedy this problem in 2000 when it passed the Beach Act, which was designed to ensure consistent health standards by 2004. Sarah Chasis notes that guidelines have not yet been issued for implementing the law. When those guidelines are finally developed, Ms Chasis says she hopes they will be strong enough to protect public health and the environment.