Coming & Going: Rating water quality at beaches, boarding yourself

Friday, July 30, 2010; 4:11 PM

For 20 years, the Natural Resources Defense Council has performed the white glove test on more than 3,000 beaches in the United States, focusing on water quality and health standards. This year, the nonprofit group had an extra (slick) challenge: to determine the effects of the oil spill on gulf beaches.

In its annual "Testing the Waters: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches," the group expanded its focus to address the oil spill's footprint on gulf beaches, culling data from state Web sites, health officials and other authorities. As of last week, it determined that gulf beaches were closed or under advisory or notice for 2,239 days, 10 times more than during the same period last year. Of about 250 monitored beaches along the coast, one in five were affected, including 16 of 20 Mississippi beaches, 16 of 180 in western Florida, 11 of 28 in Louisiana and 6 of 25 in Alabama. Texas beaches, so far, are unscathed.

"In the gulf, things are changing daily," said David Beckman, the NRDC's water program director, "but we know there's a lot of oil out there, and health officials need to diligently monitor the beaches."

To assist beachgoers, the organization created a comprehensive interactive map sprinkled with icons that provide up-to-date reports. For example, click on "Mobile County, Alabama," and a pop-up box shows an advisory for Dauphin Island Public Beach, plus a link for more info. The site is updated daily.

As in previous years, those headed to strands elsewhere may want to read the report before trading in their swimsuit for a hazmat suit.

Based on government monitoring reports from 2009, the NRDC determined that last year (before the spill), pollution and contaminants resulted in 18,682 closures and advisory days, a 7 percent rate of health standards violations that has not budged since 2007. "There is no clear trend that we are making progress, because of the runoff problem," Beckman said.

By region, the study found the dirtiest bodies of water to be the Great Lakes; the cleanest, in the Southeast and on the Delmarva Peninsula. Broken down by state, Louisiana should be ashamed; New Hampshire deserves applause.

To further educate the swimsuited masses, the group also assigned stars to 200 of the most popular beaches, based on water cleanliness and monitoring and public notification practices. Among those that received one star are Florida's Treasure Island Beach; a section of Nags Head, N.C.; parts of Rockaway Beach and Coney Island in New York; and South Carolina's Myrtle Beach. Five stars were bestowed upon Hampton Beach State Park in New Hampshire and California's Newport Beach, plus portions of Cardiff State Beach and Laguna Beach. Gulf Shores Public Beach in Alabama would have received a high ranking had a certain incident not occurred.

The organization has compiled a database at with more info. For the gulf study, visit

DIY boarding

Continental Airlines is experimenting with do-it-yourself boarding. In June, the airline installed a self-boarding kiosk at one of its 133 gates at Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport. Passengers swipe boarding passes and go through a turnstile to the jet bridge.

Christen David, a spokeswoman for Continental, said it is unclear how long the airline will test the gate, which is next to a traditional boarding lane. Customers can go through either lane, but David said the self-boarding kiosk has received positive reviews because it frees up gate agents to focus on individual travelers' needs, such as changing seats.

Several airlines worldwide, including Air France and Korean Air, already use self-boarding gates.

Reporting: Andrea Sachs, Nancy Trejos. Help feed CoGo. Send travel news to: By mail: CoGo, Washington Post Travel Section, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company