Beaches across the country are being polluted with tainted runoff and sewage at a stubbornly high rate, putting swimmers at risk of getting sick, according to a new report by an environmental group.
The Natural Resources Defense Council found the number of beach water samples that failed health tests dipped to 7 percent last year from 8 percent the year before, but said the drop is the result of less rainfall flushing contaminants to the shore, not an overall decline in pollution.
Delaware, New Hampshire and North Carolina had the cleanest beaches in 2012, according to the group’s annual Testing the Waters report. The states with the most polluted beaches were Minnesota, Wisconsin and Ohio.
The findings showed little progress for California beaches, which were responsible for 25 percent of the beach closures in the nation. California ranked 20th out of 30 states for beach water quality.
The number of beach closings and advisories in California fell slightly in 2012, but not nearly enough to show that beach pollution is improving, said Noah Garrison, staff attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“We want to see that number dropping,” he said. “Unfortunately we still see large numbers of closing and advisory days and we still have persistent pollution problems at our beaches.”
The report analyzed bacterial test results and public advisories from more than 3,000 beaches in 30 coastal and Great Lakes states. A high bacteria count indicates the presence of pathogens that can give swimmers skin rashes, eye infections or stomach and respiratory illnesses.
Interactive maps in the report allow readers to search by ZIP code with mobile phones to find water quality ratings and swimming advisories for their favorite beach.
The report called for stronger beach water quality standards to prevent swimmers from being exposed to contaminated beach water. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last year approved a new set of beach water quality standards, but environmental groups say they are not stringent enough to protect public health.
The Natural Resources Defense Council also recommended adopting faster testing methods. The bacteria-based tests used to monitor beaches across the country can take several days to obtain results and warn swimmers.
“You could go swimming Saturday morning at the beach and not know until Monday whether it’s safe to get in the water,” Garrison said.
Some areas have experimentedwith beach water tests that provide same-day results, but they are not yet widely used.
To clean up beaches in the long term, the council said coastal areas should build rain-absorbing infrastructure to prevent contaminated runoff from reaching the shore or triggering sewage overflows.