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Report highlights poor water quality at nation's beaches

Mark Ralston / AFP/Getty Images

A beach closed sign warns against contaminated water due to recent rain runoff in 2010 at a beach in California.

Before you wade into the water this summer, you may want to consult the beach water report released Wednesday by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The report found that the number of closing and health advisory days at America’s ocean, bay and Great Lakes beaches spiked to the second-highest level measured by the NRDC in the past two decades.

Interactive map: See how 200 popular beaches fared

Using data gathered at more than 3,200 beaches nationwide, the nonprofit environmental group found that 70 percent of the 2010 beach closings and health advisories were issued after testing showed bacteria levels in the water exceeded health standards. Pollution sources include storm water runoff and sewage overflows. Overall, 8 percent of water samples exceeded national standards, a slight increase compared with 7 percent for the past four years.  

“The beaches in many places are open and many beaches are very clean,” said Jon Devine, senior attorney in the NRDC water program. “But there are pollution problems that lead to beach contaminations, closures and advisories that have not been adequately been dealt with at the national scale. There are a number of opportunities at the national level to clean up those sources.”

“Testing the Waters: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches” found that heavy rainfall in Hawaii, which can pollute beaches with storm-water runoff, as well as unspecified contamination of California beaches and the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, significantly contributed to the higher number closings and health advisories, which increased by 29 percent since last measured in 2009.

The most frequently contaminated beach water samples were those taken from the Great Lakes; 15 percent of samples from this region exceeded public health standards. Beach water from the Southeast, New York-New Jersey coast and the Delmarva region (Delaware, Maryland and Virginia) was the cleanest at 4 percent, 5 percent and 6 percent, respectively.

The NRDC report awarded “superstar beach” status to four beaches that ranked highest in the group’s 5-star rating guide. These beaches were singled out for having perfect testing results in each of the past three years:

  • Delaware: Rehoboth Beach-Rehoboth Avenue Beach in Sussex County
  • Delaware: Dewey Beach in Sussex County
  • Minnesota: Park Point Lafayette Community Club Beach in St. Louis County
  • New Hampshire: Hampton Beach State Park in Rockingham County

Ten beaches with persistently poor water quality are included in the NRDC’s “repeat offender” list. Water samples at these beaches exceeded public health standards more than 25 percent of the time each year between 2006 and 2010:

  • California: Avalon Beach in Los Angeles County (3 of 5 monitored sections)
    Avalon Beach – Near Busy B Café
    Avalon Beach – North of GP Pier
    Avalon Beach – South of GP Pier
  • California: Cabrillo Beach Station in Los Angeles County
  • California: Doheny State Beach in Orange County (2 of 6 monitored sections)
    Doheny State Beach – North of San Juan Creek
    Doheny State Beach – Surf Zone at Outfall
  • Florida: Keaton Beach in Taylor County
  • Illinois: North Point Marina North Beach in Lake County
  • New Jersey: Beachwood Beach West in Ocean County
  • Ohio: Villa Angela State Park in Cuyahoga County
  • Texas: Ropes Park in Nueces County
  • Wisconsin: Eichelman beach in Kenosha County
  • Wisconsin: South Shore Beach in Milwaukee

Sara Hisel-McCoy, director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Standards and Health Protection Division in the Office of Water, told msnbc.com that increased monitoring, better testing standards and more thorough reporting have led to an increase in the number of annual beach closings and advisories.

In the agency’s latest annual beach water quality report, the EPA found that despite closures, beaches were open for swimming over 95 percent of the beach season. To improve detection efforts, the EPA awards almost $10 million annually to coastal and Great Lakes states for monitoring beach water and notifying the public of advisories and closures.

Both the EPA and the NRDC stress that beach water pollution can cause waterborne illnesses that include vomiting, diarrhea, eye infections, itchy skin and other serious health problems, and urge beachgoers to check the water quality before they go to the beach.

Swimmers can check the water quality report at their beach on the EPA website. Not all beaches are monitored, and the EPA suggests beachgoers avoid unmonitored spots where the water quality is unknown. The NRDC also has a guide to finding clean beaches on its website.

“Those traveling to beaches from greater distances with beach visitation as their primary purpose may or may not do their research, but those who do will welcome the NRDC and EPA websites," said Michael Blazey, professor of recreation and leisure studies at California State University, Long Beach.

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Find more by Harriet Baskas on Stuck at The Airport.com and follow her on Twitter.