If you plan on hitting the beach this summer, a new report recommends first checking your local water quality online before packing your bags - or risk bringing home more trouble than wet bathing suits and sand-filled shoes.
Last year was one of the worst on record in terms of bacterial pollution from human and animal waste, according to the nonprofit Natural Resource Defense Council's (NRDC) 22nd annual survey of water quality at over 3,000 U.S. beaches.
State and local beach officials reported the third-highest number of closings and advisory days in over 20 years. The impact of sewage and stormwater runoff on swimmers include diarrhea, pink eye, ear, nose and throat problems, respiratory ailments and several neurological disorders.
To make the information easier to access, NRDC debuted a new online tool at www.nrdc.org/beaches that allows the public to search beaches by postal zip code. An application for mobile devices is also in the works.
"Having that information when you're planning the trip is far more important than when you've taken the trip," said Steve Fleischli, Director of NRDC's Water Program.
The report shows how water quality levels vary significantly across the country. Delaware, not usually the first state that jumps to mind for many when thinking of fun in the sun, nonetheless had beaches reporting the lowest water contamination levels in the country, while Louisiana pollution has for consecutive years violated federal beach water standards.
In California, the picture was mixed. Five beaches, including Newport and Huntington State Beaches in Orange County, for example, were awarded NRDC's 5-star rating out of the dozen others, nationally, that received the top honor.
However, eight of the state's beaches appeared on a list of the nation's 15 worst "Repeat Offenders" for violating public health standards.
Evaluation criteria included monitoring frequency, indicators of beach water quality and whether the public was notified of contamination. Small children, senior citizens and people with weak immune systems are most at risk from exposure.
Funding on the line
NRDC has urged the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to modernize and raise water-quality standards, last set in 1986. The EPA is currently reviewing them.
"We know that much of this filth is preventable and we can turn the tide against water pollution," said NRDC attorney Jon Devine.
NRDC also advocates investment in preventive efforts -- from green roofs to porous pavement -- that allow stormwater to filter back into the ground naturally rather than carrying waste from dirty streets into local beaches. More than 10 trillion gallons of untreated stormwater make their way every year into surface waters, according to EPA estimates.
Over the next several months, Congress will debate whether to continue funding The Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health (BEACH) Act of 2000. It set national water quality monitoring and reporting standards and authorized $30 million dollars in funding. But lawmakers have only set aside about one-third of that amount in any fiscal year.
Earlier this year, citing a "difficult financial climate," the EPA recommended cuts to the near $10 million in annual grants it gives to states to support their test and monitoring procedures.
"People are talking about billions of dollars in the budget and when you're talking about $10 million dollars, it seems like a rounding error," NRDC's Fleischli said. "But if you make this kind of budget cut it's going to have significant ramifications for the public and the information that the public has."