Americans love the beach, but should watch out for bacteria

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, nearly $6 trillion was spent at U.S. beaches in 2007. The NOAA figure was actually the total revenue generated from economic activity in coastal counties; it was not an attempt to estimate beach spending. This version has been corrected.

February 26, 2012

From sea to shining sea, Americans love the beach.

The average citizen hangs out on an ocean shore, Great Lake or river about 10 days a year, according to a federal estimate. And the money they spend is crazy. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, nearly $6 trillion was generated from economic activity in coastal counties in 2007.

But money doesn’t always buy happiness at the beach. About 3.5 million people each year get sick enough to throw up or get diarrhea after splashing in water containing harmful bacteria, according to an Environmental Protection Agency estimate. This is why environmentalists are criticizing the Obama administration’s proposal this month to cut all funding for states to monitor contamination at beaches starting in 2013.

The president’s budget request has a long way to go before passing, but “if it goes through, the states are going to have a tough choice — cut back the number of beaches they monitor or find state revenue to cover their efforts,” said Jon Devine, an attorney for the water program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, or NRDC.

“I find it hard to speculate about how it might play out, but . . . fewer instances of monitoring and less frequent monitoring,” Devine said. “The beach may well be open, but the states will be less well equipped to provide more current information.”


Beachgoers enjoy the sun last July in Ocean City, Md. (Amanda Voisard/The Washington Post)

The Environmental Protection Agency, which has given about $110 million to states under the Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act since its passage in 2000, defended the budget cut as the right decision in austere times.

Beach monitoring is important, but after 12 years of funding, states now have the technical expertise to go it alone and continue testing “without federal support,” EPA spokesman Brendan Gilfillan said in a statement. Last year that support totaled $10 million.

Except there’s one problem, said Steve Fleischli, a senior attorney at the NRDC: States, which are also cutting budgets, don’t have the money.

Billions of dollars at stake

California, which received $507,000 for testing this year, would be forced to reduce water quality testing that’s already been dramatically scaled back by government austerity cuts, officials there said. The state reaps about $11 billion yearly from beach tourism.

The possibility of losing $266,000 is a concern in Maryland and could lead to beach closures, officials said. Tourism and recreation on the state’s shoreline generated $1.1 billion in revenue in 2004, according to the National Ocean Economics Program, or NOEP.

Virginia relies on its $273,000 in federal funding for all testing on its 75-mile coast, so cutting it would have an impact, officials said. Virginia’s ocean economy generated $5 billion, according to the NOEP.

North Carolina currently collects water quality samples at 240 swimming areas, state officials said. If its $300,000 federal payment is cut, the state would probably lay off three workers, reduce the salary of the water quality program’s manager and slice the number of test sites to fewer than 100.

“And I’m not sure we can do that, because we would have to go back on the lab supplies that allow us to test. We would have to scale back to what’s manageable with the money we have, state funds,” said J.D. Potts, manager of the recreational water quality program for the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Wildly popular North Carolina beaches such as Nags Head, Atlantic Beach, Wrightsville Beach and three beaches at Cape Hatteras are considered Tier 1 sites that will always be tested, but possibly not as frequently as they currently are without federal funding, Potts said.

“North Carolina has excellent water quality,” Potts said. “But we do have swimming advisories. It varies.” As always, beachgoers should monitor the state’s Web site for water quality alerts.

“Vacationers want to know what the water quality is like before they make plans,” he said. But along rivers and sounds, where testing would be dramatically curtailed without federal funds, “I would just tell them we no longer monitor. We don’t have the information to tell them whether the water meets the standard for swimming or not,” Potts said.

A developing problem

Here’s one reason it’s not always safe to go into the water: As more Americans flock to the coastline to live, they produce more sewage, which spreads harmful bacteria, especially when storm water and untreated sewage overwhelm sewer systems, sending waste into waterways.

Elevated levels of bacteria in the water accounted for 73 percent of beach closures in 2008, according to a NRDC report.

The millions who become sick could be a conservative estimate, the EPA says. Recreational swimmers usually don’t go to the hospital for gastronomical illnesses that cause fever, acute vomiting and diarrhea, the most commonly reported recreational water illness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In the late 1990s, the issue came before Congress, which passed the Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act in 2000. Seven years later, a Government Accountability Office report said the program improved water quality standards set by states, but noted some critical lapses.

The EPA had not published the new or revised water quality criteria for pathogens that Congress required by 2005. The NRDC sued and was granted a consent decree, ordering the agency to complete the work.

Recently the EPA set that standard, saying it’s okay if 1 in 28 swimmers develops a gastrointestinal illness that leads to diarrhea and vomiting. Fleischli said that number should be closer to 1 in 100.

“You’ve got EPA proposing numbers that clearly aren’t protecting public health,” he said. With a lower federal standard, state testing is even more important. “People might not have information to know today is not a good day to go in the water, and they might still go.”

Darryl Fears has worked at The Washington Post for more than a decade, mostly as a reporter on the National staff. He currently covers the environment, focusing on the Chesapeake Bay and issues affecting wildlife.
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