A guest post from Mara Dias, Surfrider Foundation Water Quality Manager.
The deadline for Congress to pass a spending bill to fund the federal government this coming year is fast approaching this Friday, December 11. One of the programs whose funding is uncertain going into these final rounds of negotiations is the BEACH Act. Administered by the Environmental Protection Agency, the BEACH Act grants program helps pay for beach water quality monitoring and public health protection programs in coastal states across the country.
Both the President and the House of Representatives have proposed to zero-out all funding for the BEACH Act. Fortunately, the draft Senate budget includes level program funding as there are many ocean champions in the Senate that understand the high importance of healthy, clean water at the beach to the American public and towards protecting our strong and always growing coastal tourism economies (valued at $97 billion in 2012).
The Administration’s proposal shifts all responsibility for public health protection at US beaches to the states, yet the states do not have any surplus in their budgets to support this increased responsibility. Existing funding is only a fraction of what is needed to fully protect beach-goers. Currently, the Surfrider Foundation’s Blue Water Task Force — its volunteer-led water quality testing program — helps to fill in the gaps where the federal funding falls short. But if the funding is cut completely from the federal budget, over 100 million Americans will be put at risk of getting sick from polluted waters.
The Current Realities of Polluted Beaches in the U.S.
Over 20,000 beach closing and advisory days are issued in the US every year. Polluted water at the beach puts beachgoers at risk of contracting waterborne illnesses such as diarrhea, nausea, skin rashes, and ear, eye and sinus infections and worse.
These public health concerns take away priceless recreational opportunities for many American families and cost us money to boot. The public health cost of gastrointestinal illnesses caused by swimming at polluted beaches in two urban counties in California, Los Angeles and Orange, has been estimated at $21 — $51 million for per year. Although not currently available, the nation-wide aggregate economic impact would be much higher as over 100 million people visit US beaches every year.
State and local beach water quality monitoring programs must be funded through the BEACH Act to not only protect public health, but to also protect our booming coastal recreation and tourism economies valued at $97 billion in 2012. While beach closures do have a temporary, economic impact on local communities, potentially up to $50,000 per day in urban areas during the peak summer season, the economic consequences that would befall a coastal community if people contracted serious health conditions from swimming in the water and there was no warning provided, would be devastating on a seasonal beach-driven economy that depends on visitor confidence in clean water.
Surfrider’s Blue Water Task Force Fills in the Gaps
Our volunteer-led Blue Water Task Force water-testing program began over 20 years ago in Ventura, Santa Cruz and Orange Counties because the state and local health departments were not providing enough information on the safety of the water at the beach.
Since then the State of California passed AB 411 which requires water testing and public notification programs at recreationally-used beaches from April 1 — October 31, and all coastal and Great Lake states have followed suit, many prompted by the passage of the BEACH Act of 2000. Surfrider was the driving force behind the passage of the BEACH Act, because as states started developing beach water testing programs, we wanted to see protective water quality standards implemented consistently and we supported the federal government’s role in helping to fund and providing guidance to states on running effective beach programs.
The BEACH Act has largely been a success. In 1999 before its passage there were approximately 1,300 coastal beaches being monitored. As recently as 2013 this number was up to 3,485 beaches across the US.
Implementation of the BEACH Act has had its challenges as well. Although originally authorized at $30 million, the EPA BEACH Act grants program has never received more that $10 million, which even at that low level, it has been a hard fight to keep funded in recent years.
Chronic underfunding means that state and local beach programs do not have the resources they need to provide 100% coverage of our beaches year-round. This is where Surfrider’s Blue Water Task Force program comes in. Most chapter water testing programs are designed to fill in the gaps and to complement the agency beach programs. Surfrider is testing beaches that are not covered by the agencies, and we are monitoring potential sources of pollution such as stormwater outlets and rivers and creeks that discharge onto the beach. And our program is also in operation year-round, providing public health protection through the off season, when the lifeguards leave the beaches and health officials stop collecting water samples, but surfers continue to surf and could potentially be exposed to pollution.
And our work doesn’t stop there. When our water quality results demonstrate real pollution problems, our volunteers use their data to build community awareness and to motivate local governments to take action to identify and fix the sources of ocean pollution.
Call to Action: Tell Congress to Keep Funding the Beach Act
It is obvious that water pollution at beaches is a persistent problem that is not going away. The BEACH Act, along with Surfrider’s Blue Water Task Force program, helps to monitor water quality at U. S. beaches — protecting beachgoers and alerting officials when there is a problem. It is not perfect — ideally, we need more federal funding to make a huge impact. But if the new budget completely cuts the Beach Act, we will be taking several steps back in keeping our beaches open and beachgoers healthy. All of us need to stand up for clean water and tell our government officials we need to keep funding the BEACH Act. Time is running out, send a note to your representatives in Congress today.