By Cat Lazaroff
Environmental News Sevice
WASHINGTON, DC, (ENS) - Today, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is releasing almost $2 million in grants to coastal and Great Lakes states to improve monitoring and public notification of human health risks at beaches. And not a moment too soon - a new report out this week shows that variations in state water quality requirements and reporting standards mean that the public is often not informed about hazardous beach conditions.
"For the first time, we are making federal funds available to states specifically to help protect public health at the nation's beaches," said Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Christie Whitman. "A third of all Americans visit our coasts every year. Consistent monitoring for bacterial contamination, along with prompt public notification of health hazards at our beaches, can help assure Americans safe enjoyment of our coastal waters." Eligible states can use the funds to develop programs to monitor water quality at their beaches and to notify the public when water quality problems are detected.
The funds are available under a new federal law passed by Congress last October, the Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act (BEACH Act). The new law established a national program for monitoring beach water quality and notifying the public of unsafe conditions.
In 2000, in response to EPA's annual National Beach Health Survey, states voluntarily submitted data on about 2000 beaches. One third of the reported beaches issued a beach advisory or closing at least once during the swimming season.
EPA estimates that Americans make a total of 910 million trips to coastal areas each year, spending about $44 billion.
This summer, close to 150 million Americans are expected to visit the nation's beaches. The question is, what will all those beachgoers find when they make their visit? Will the water be clean? Will the beach be accessible to the public? And in some cases - will there even be sand on the beach?
Some answers to these questions can be found in Surfrider Foundation's 2001 State of the Beach Report, which identifies the good, the bad and the ugly of how America is managing its coastal resources. This unique report is designed to empower local citizens and governments with information necessary to monitor changes in their beaches.
Surfrider Foundation has approached this report from a unique perspective, that of a recreational user group that spends more time in the ocean than any other. For that reason Surfrider created a report that engages the general public as well as it does politicians and coastal management experts.
"What makes Surfrider's State of the Beach Report so unique is its ability to communicate complex coastal issues in a manner that is easily digestible to the general public," said Dr. Orrin Pilkey, professor of geology and director of the program for the study of developed shorelines at Duke University.
The 2001 State of the Beach Report looks at two things: the information availability and the current status of six beach health indicators for the twenty coastal states where the Surfrider Foundation has chapters. Each indicator is evaluated as to the amount of information available and the status of the indicator.
The beach health indicators are beach access, surf zone water quality, shoreline structures, beach erosion, beach nourishment and surfing areas. The report tracks the changes in the public availability of state level coastal information and the status of indicators of beach health since the 2000 State of the Beach Report.
While Surfrider did see a slight improvement in the information available to the public, they did encounter numerous data gaps. About 63 percent of the time, the information from the states was either not available or it was difficult to obtain or understand.
Overall, the results of the study reiterate the need for more accessible and easy to understand information so the public can make more informed decisions.
"While we did see some improvement in the states' ability to provide information on beaches, there is still a dire need for improvement," said Chad Nelsen, Surfrider's environmental director and the author of the report. "It is imperative for all coastal states to engage their citizenry in the protection of the aesthetic and economic value of their beaches by providing them with understandable information on the state of their beaches."
"As it stands the vast majority of the states are failing in this regard," Nelson added. "Due to this failure, the long-term prospects of a healthy coastal zone are an unknown." Surfrider Foundation's report recommends that the federal BEACH Act be implemented quickly and funded fully by Congress to ensure that all states have the same water quality testing standards. The report also recommends that states should create a stringent policy against hardening of the shoreline and improve the public dissemination of coastal erosion information.
Surfrider Foundation's 2001 State of the Beach Report is available online at: www.surfrider.org/stateofthebeach
The EPA surveys and additional beach information, including information for states interested in applying for the beach grants, are available on EPA's beach Web site at: www.epa.gov/ost/beaches