SANTA MONICA — More than ever last year, beachgoers around the country found their plans dampened by warnings to keep away from the water.
The number of beach closings and advisories nationwide nearly doubled last year, from 6,160 in 1999 to at least 11,270, according to a report released Wednesday by the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The environmental group, which has conducted annual beach surveys for the last 11 years, said improved monitoring is revealing just how seriously people have been fouling the beaches they love.
“It’s been there all along – we’re just finding it,” said Heather Hoecherl, NRDC project attorney.
The numbers rose largely because many states are monitoring beaches more closely, and because rain sent more polluted runoff in some coastal areas in 2000, according to the NRDC, which conducted its own survey and used U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data in the report.
The group wants the Bush administration to implement new federal water quality standards, announced just before President Clinton left office, which are aimed at cleaning up coastal pollution and reducing urban and agricultural runoff polluting about 21,000 lakes, ponds, streams and rivers across the country.
Eighty-five percent of the closures and advisories stemmed from bacteria counts that exceeded federal swimmer safety standards. Studies have shown swimming in bacteria-contaminated water makes people more likely to suffer from cold-like symptoms, ear infections and gastrointestinal problems.
More than a third of the closures and advisories were associated with sewage or storm runoff tainted by oil, pet waste, fertilizer and other contaminants. The cause for more than half of the problems was unknown, but polluted runoff probably was connected to many of them, NRDC attorney David Beckman said.
Most of advisories and closures took place in California, and close to half of the Golden State’s warnings came from just two counties: San Diego and Los Angeles.
There were no warning signs along the beach near the Santa Monica Pier where Gail Futterman’s kids were playing, but the possibly of sickness still made her a little nervous.
“I considered not letting my daughter swim; she has a cut,” said Futterman, of Indio. “I decided to put peroxide on her foot when we get her home. It’d be cruel to keep her out.”
California and other states are taking steps to keep polluted water out of the ocean. The NRDC released its report outside a Santa Monica facility that treats the small but hazardous trickle of dry-season urban runoff that would otherwise drain to the ocean.
Agencies in Southern California and other areas also are making developers use building techniques that limit the amount of polluted water that rushes down storm drains.
San Diego has increased the number of employees monitoring storm drain pollution from three to more than 20, but needs to do much more, said Donna Frye, an environmental activist who was elected to the City Council in June.
Frye has urged the city to speed up repair work on sewers, which are responsible for much of San Diego’s beach pollution.
“It will not be cheap, but there are some sewer pipes that haven’t been cleaned in 15 or 20 years,” Frye said.
The NRDC survey singled out two states, Louisiana and Oregon, as “beach bums” for failing to regularly monitor their coastlines.
Louisiana officials contend they’d need more beaches to be bums. Only about 10 miles of the state’s 1,500 miles of coastline are swimming beaches; the rest is mostly marsh.
Greg Pettit, manager of water quality for Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality, said the state is working with the EPA to develop an ocean monitoring system. The state has focused more attention on its rivers and streams, which are more popular recreation sites.
Pettit added, “There are other risks of swimming in Oregon’s oceans such as currents and coldness that pose far greater risks than bacteria.”
Rachel Schmid, a surfer from Cannon Beach, Ore., said Oregon is cleaner than other places she’s surfed — including California, Hawaii and Costa Rica.
“There are times when it can get pretty polluted and it causes surfers to get sinus infections,” Schmid said. But she added, “Compared to Southern California the Oregon coast is very nice.”
Beach cleanliness also is relative to Eugene Varshavsky, a native of Latvia who let the surf splash his ankles as he walked on Santa Monica Beach.
“It’s pretty clean here,” said Varshavsky, who moved to Los Angeles two years ago. Along the yellow sands of Latvia’s beaches, “Sometimes it’s not possible to swim in because there’s too much pollution.”
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