The best way to escape the summer heat is to head to the beach; however, you may be putting your health at risk by swimming in polluted waters. A record number of public beach closures prompted by water pollution occurred last year. According to a Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) report of US beaches, “pollution caused the number of beach closings and advisories to hit their fourth-highest level in the 19-year history of the report.” Faulty stormwater and sewage systems are largely to blame for the water pollution closing 20,000 beaches.
As a result of legal pressure from NRDC, the Environmental Protection Agency has agreed to update its 20-year-old beachwater quality standards by 2012. The legal settlement requires EPA to:
- Conduct new health studies and swimmer surveys.
- Approve a water-testing method that will produce same-day results.
- Protect beachgoers from a broader range of waterborne illnesses…
But the settlement doesn’t actually require local beach officials to use the rapid-testing methods developed by EPA.
The NRDC beach survey does not include rivers, which also provide swimming holes and are subject to unhealthy water pollution. Take for example the rivers and reservoirs of Northern California, in which toxic algae blooms have killed dogs and sickened humans. This summer, Humboldt County has issued blue-green algae warnings to swimmers. The Redwood Times explains the causes and solutions to the toxic algae problem polluting rivers:
Warm, slow-moving waters with lots of nutrients are most likely to experience blue-green algae blooms. Two nutrients required by algae are phosphorous and nitrogen. These are found in fertilizers, animal waste, and human (septic system) waste. Excessive pumping of lakes, streams or rivers can cause the water to stagnate and heat up. People can take the following measures to prevent algal blooms in our waterways:
- Minimize the use of water, fertilizers and pesticides on your property. Don’t apply more than the recommended amounts of fertilizers or pesticides, and conserve water with drip irrigation, etc.
- Recycle or dispose of any “spent” pre-fertilized soil that has been used for intensive growing. Runoff from this soil can still contain a lot of nutrients that may stimulate algal blooms.
- Operate and maintain your septic system properly. Overloaded or damaged septic systems can increase nutrients in nearby waters. Have your system pumped every three-four years.
- Encourage the growth of native plants around banks and shorelines. Wetland and streamside plants help filter water and don’t require fertilizers or pesticides to stay healthy.
- Prevent surface water runoff from agricultural areas and keep livestock out of surface waters.
- Prevent erosion around construction and logging operations.
As summer wanes on, be careful where you choose to swim. Call your local Department of Health and Human Services before heading to the beach to see if any warning have been issued. Unless we fix our infrastucture now, the problem of water pollution at public beaches will only grow as the effects of climate change continue.