By Mark Lebetkin
The Active Times
You're in good company if Independence Day weekend means heading out to the beach for a little surf and sand, but you may want to check more than just the weather and UV forecast beforehand. Looking up the water quality report could save you from spending most of your beach trip in the bathroom -- or worse.
Harmful bacteria and viruses that cause rashes, gastrointestinal distress and hosts of other diseases are present at unsafe levels in the water at many of the nation’s beaches, according to a new report by the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The environmental non-profit just issued its annual beach scorecard, rating the water quality, testing standards and advisory systems at 200 of the country's most popular ocean and Great Lake beaches.
"There's no ominous theme song to warn swimmers of this risk like you might see in the movies,” said Steve Fleischli, director of the NRDC’s water program.
"This danger is silent and invisible," he added. "After a day playing in the water, the family may get dysentery, hepatitis, stomach flu, infections or rashes."
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The report also ranked states by the percentage of their water quality tests in 2012 that failed national standards for bacterial contamination.
At the bottom of the list: Minnesota, Wisconsin and -- dead last -- Ohio. The Great Lakes states were among the worst out of the 30 ranked, and only Michigan managed to rise to the middle of the pack.
But pollution from sewage spills and stormwater runoff isn't just a freshwater phenomenon. California ranked 20th, with eight percent of water samples statewide showing unsafe bacterial levels. Orange, Los Angeles and San Francisco Counties, among others, exceeded that average significantly, and one Channel Islands beach was the most contaminated out of more than 3,000 nationwide that the NRDC examined.
Although the EPA sets minimum standards for allowable bacterial levels, states are responsible for setting their own testing and beach closure guidelines, which vary widely from state to state -- even from beach to beach -- and are highly dependent on federal funds provided through the BEACH Act. The Obama administration has threatened to defund the program in next year’s budget.
But it's not all bad news for beachgoers. States like Delaware, New Hampshire and North Carolina all have aggressive monitoring programs and low contamination levels. The NRDC also named 13 "5-Star Beaches" where there is little to no pollution, and where officials will be quick to let you know if there is. They are:
No matter where you live, though, the NRDC advises checking for advisories online, looking out for posted signs and nearby drainage pipes, and avoiding the water for 24 hours after it rains -- 72 hours for heavy rain.
Avalon Beach, on the Channel Island of Santa Catalina in California, may just have the most contaminated swimming beach in the country. According to the L.A. Times, this popular SoCal sailing destination has a failing sewer system, causing raw human waste to seep into the harbor through the groundwater. One section of beach failed quality standards 83 percent of the time in 2012 and had 128 advisory or closing days.
On the whole, New Jersey has some of the best water quality standards in the nation, but the town of Beachwood, on the bay side opposite Seaside Heights, has had problems for years likely due to stormwater drainage issues and outflow from the Toms River. Beachwood Beach in particular had sub-standard bacteria levels 35 percent of the time and made NRDC’s "repeat offender" list.
The NRDC ranked Texas 21st out of 30 states in terms of beach water quality, and the shores of Corpus Christi are a good example why. Three of the worst four beaches in the state were in this city, whose bay side is shielded from the Gulf of Mexico by Padre Island. (It’s gulf-side beaches are considerably cleaner.)
Although SoCal’s beaches are among the nation's most beloved, some rank among its most soiled. Orange County's Poche County Beach and neighboring Doheny State Park stand out for their levels of bacterial filth, sparking public protests. Runoff from Poche Creek and seagull droppings have been blamed for the pollution that caused nearly constant advisories and closures last year, and earned the whole stretch a spot on NRDC's "repeat offenders" list. Next year may be better, though. Improvements to the local drainage system have boosted its 2013 ratings by California watchdog Heal the Bay.
Indiana may only kiss Lake Michigan, but its 45 miles of shoreline are among the nation's most polluted. Jeorse Park, not coincidentally adjacent to the Indiana Harbor Works, had swimming advisories for much of the 2012 season because of elevated E. coli levels. One section failed 70 percent of its water tests.
Chicago's Lake Michigan beaches may be a welcome relief on a hot summer day, but they fail water quality tests a tenth of the time. The worst is Montrose Beach -- and Montrose Dog Beach in particular. The latter had high bacteria levels 38 percent of the time, and the human section 25 percent. And yet, despite almost daily water testing in season, only seven advisories were issued where people swim, and none on the dog beach.
New York State's Great Lake shores aren’t the only troubled ones. This tony NYC suburb on Long Island Sound has multiple yacht clubs—and the most contaminated waters in the state, registering dangerous bacteria levels in half of its tests last year. And Hurricane Sandy isn’t just to blame. Runoff in Mamaroneck's tucked-away coves take longer to flush out into the sound, Westchester’s assistant health commissioner Pete DeLucia told local paper The Journal News.
Milwaukee's South Shore Beach is so plagued with pollution problems that local officials have mulled moving it 100 yards to the south, on the other side of a stone jetty that causes stagnant water to pool, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. NRDC called this beach one of the country’s dirtiest, and last year it racked up 46 closing or advisory days, violating quality standards 43 percent of the time.
For a complete slideshow of the America's Most Contaminated Beaches, go to The Active Times.
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