Annual Beach Report: Is Your Beach Safe for Swimming?

Annual Beach Report: Is Your Beach Safe for Swimming?

Natural Resources Defense Council

[Editor's note: Be sure to check out Waterkeeper Alliance's new Swim Guide, an app for iPhone, iPad, iPod touch and Android that makes it easy to explore and enjoy the best beaches in the following areas—Alabama, Alberta, British Columbia, California, Charleston SC, Florida, the Great Lakes, the Ottawa River region, and parts of Oregon and Washington State.]

America’s beaches saw the third-highest number of closing and advisory days in more than two decades last year, with 5,945 closing and advisory days in California—25 percent of the national total—confirming California beaches continue to suffer from stormwater runoff and sewage pollution that can make people sick and harm coastal economies, according to the 22nd annual beachwater quality report released today by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

“Our beaches are plagued by a sobering legacy of water pollution,” said NRDC attorney Noah Garrison. “Luckily, much of this filth is preventable and we can turn the tide against water pollution. By establishing better beachwater quality standards and putting untapped 21st century solutions in place—we can make a day at the beach as carefree as it should be, and safeguard California’s vital tourism industry.”

In its 22nd year, NRDC’s annual report—Testing the Waters: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches—analyzes government data on beachwater testing results from 2011 at more than 3,000 beach testing locations nationwide. The report examines the pollution realities that loom at America’s beaches and calls for a timely, concerted effort to avert future beachwater pollution.

In California, there were 5,945 closing and advisory days statewide last year, a one percent increase from the previous year (5,756 days). Nationally, California ranked 21st in Beachwater Quality (out of 30 states). Nine percent of samples exceeded national standards for designated beach areas in 2011. Consistent with past years, the most common reported cause of contamination came from elevated bacteria levels (94 percent), preemptive closures (i.e., without waiting for monitoring results) due to known sewage spills/leaks (4 percent), and preemptive closures due to heavy rainfall (2 percent).

The report confirms that last year, our nation’s beachwater continued to suffer from serious contamination and pollutants by human and animal waste. As a result, America’s beaches issued the third-highest number of closings or advisories in the report’s history last year, with the second-highest number occurring just the year before.

The report provides a 5-star rating guide to 200 of the nation’s popular beaches, evaluating them for water quality and best practices for testing and public notification. This year, the report awards a dozen beaches with a 5-star rating, as well as highlights the top 15 “Repeat Offenders,” which repeatedly exhibit chronically high bacteria counts.

Last year, three beaches in California received a 5-star rating:

  • Newport Beach in Orange County (2 of 3 monitored sections): Newport Beach - 38th Street and Newport Beach - 52nd/53rd Street
  • Bolsa Chica Beach in Orange County
  • Huntington State Beach in Orange County

Additionally, the following beaches in the region were included on the nationwide Repeat Offender list, indicating persistent contamination problems over the last five years:

  • Avalon Beach in Los Angeles County (3 of 5 monitored sections): Avalon Beach—West of GP Pier (50 feet), Avalon Beach—West of GP Pier (100 feet), and Avalon Beach—East of GP Pier
  • Doheny State Beach in Orange County (3 of 6 monitored sections): Doheny State Beach—North of San Juan Creek, Doheny State Beach—Surfzone at Outfall, and Doheny State Beach—1000' South Outfall

For the first time this year, NRDC’s report includes a zip code searchable map of more than 3,000 beaches nationwide, making it easier than ever for users to check the water quality, monitoring, closing and swimming advisory information at their local beaches. Find it by clicking here.

This year, Testing the Waters identifies two critical actions that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can take to better protect people at the beach. First, EPA should reconsider its proposed recommended standards for beachwater quality, which leave beachgoers inadequately protected and unnecessarily exposed to dangerous pathogens in the water. Second, because polluted runoff is the biggest known source of pollution that causes swimming advisories or beach closings, EPA must reform and rigorously enforce the national requirements that govern sources of polluted stormwater to ensure that runoff is controlled using innovative green infrastructure solutions.


California has more than 400 beaches along more than 500 miles of coastline on the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay. In 2011 and continuing into 2012, the California Department of Health Services administered the BEACH Act grant. Starting in October 2012, the California State Water Resources Control Board will provide funding for the state contribution to the state’s beach monitoring program and will administer the BEACH Act grant.

In California, the percentage of samples violating health standards statewide increased to 11 percent in 2011 from 10 percent the previous year. California came in 21st out of 30 states for the number of beachwater samples violating national standards in 2011.

The beaches with the most violations in 2011 were Avalon Beach 50 feet west of the Green Pleasure Pier (72 percent) and Avalon Beach 100 feet west of the Green Pleasure Pier (63 percent) in Los Angeles County; Imperial Beach Municipal Beach, Cortez Avenue in San Diego County (59 percent); Poche County Beach (58 percent) and Doheny State Beach surf zone at outfall (57 percent) in Orange County; and Surfrider Beach, Malibu, at the breach or last known breach (55 percent) in Los Angeles County.

The county with the highest health standard violation rate in 2011 was Contra Costa County (19 percent), followed by Los Angeles (18 percent), Santa Barbara (17 percent), Humboldt (15 percent), Monterey (13 percent), San Francisco (11 percent), San Mateo (10 percent), Santa Cruz (10 percent), Orange (8 percent), San Luis Obispo (7 percent), Alameda (6 percent), San Diego (6 percent), Marin (6 percent), Ventura (3 percent), Sonoma (3 percent), and Mendocino (3 percent) counties. No samples were collected at beaches in Del Norte County.

Closing and advisory days in 2011 at America’s beaches reached the third-highest level in the 22 years since NRDC began compiling this report at 23,481 days. This was a 3 percent decrease from 2010; that year marked the second-highest number of closings and advisories.

More than two-thirds of the closings and advisories in 2011 were issued because testing revealed indicator bacteria levels in the water violated public health standards, potentially indicating the presence of human or animal waste. Stormwater runoff was the primary known source of known pollution nationwide, consistent with past years, indicating a lack of needed progress on the problem at the national level. Sewage overflows were also a contributor.

This year’s report found that water quality at America’s beaches remained largely stable, with 8 percent of beachwater samples nationwide violating public health standards in 2011, compared to 8 percent the previous year and 7 percent for the four years prior.

The Great Lakes region had the highest violation rate of beachwater standards—11 percent of samples in 2011. The Delmarva had the lowest rate of samples—4 percent violated standards. In between were Western states (8 percent), New England (7 percent), New York-New Jersey coast (7 percent) and the Gulf Coast (6 percent).

Individual states with the highest violation rates of reported samples in 2011 were Louisiana (29 percent), Ohio (22 percent) and Illinois (12 percent). Those with the lowest rates of contamination last year were Delaware (1 percent), New Hampshire (1 percent), North Carolina (3 percent), New Jersey (3 percent), Florida (3 percent), Virginia (4 percent) and Hawaii (4 percent).

Under the federal Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health (BEACH) Act, states regularly test their beachwater for bacteria found in human and animal waste. These bacteria often indicate the presence of pathogens. When beach managers determine that water contamination violated health standards—or in some cases when a state suspects levels would violate standards, such as after heavy rain—they notify the public through beach closures or advisories.

Beachwater pollution nationwide causes a range of waterborne illnesses in swimmers including stomach flu, skin rashes, pinkeye, ear, nose and throat problems, dysentery, hepatitis, respiratory ailments, neurological disorders and other serious health problems. For senior citizens, small children and people with weak immune systems, the results can be fatal.


For several years, NRDC has issued star ratings to each of the 200 popular beaches around the country, based on indicators of beachwater quality, monitoring frequency, and public notification of contamination. There were twelve beaches last year that received the 5-star rating:

  • California: Newport Beach in Orange County (2 of 3 monitored sections): Newport Beach—38th Street, Newport Beach—52nd/53rd Street
  • California: Bolsa Chica Beach in Orange County
  • California: Huntington State Beach in Orange County
  • Alabama: Gulf Shores Public Beach in Baldwin County
  • Alabama: Gulf State Park Pavilion in Baldwin County
  • Delaware: Dewey Beach in Sussex County
  • Maryland: Ocean City at Beach 6 in Worcester County
  • Minnesota: Park Point Franklin Park / 13th Street South Beach Park Point in St. Louis County
  • Minnesota: Lafayette Community Club Beach in St. Louis County
  • New Hampshire: Hampton Beach State Park in Rockingham County
  • New Hampshire: Wallis Sands Beach in Rockingham County
  • Texas: South Padre Island in Cameron County

The star system awards up to five stars to each select popular beach for exceptionally low violation rates and strong testing and safety practices. The criteria include: testing more than once a week, notifying the public promptly when tests reveal bacteria levels violating health standards, and posting closings and advisories both online and at the beach.

Over the last five years of this report, sections of 15 U.S. beaches have stood out as having persistent contamination problems, with water samples violating public health standards more than 25 percent of the time for each year from 2007 to 2011:

  • California: Avalon Beach in Los Angeles County (3 of 5 monitored sections): Avalon Beach—West of Green Pleasure Pier (50 feet), Avalon Beach—West of Green Pleasure Pier (100 feet), and Avalon Beach—East of Green Pleasure Pier
  • California: Doheny State Beach in Orange County (3 of 6 monitored sections): Doheny State Beach—North of San Juan Creek, Doheny State Beach—Surfzone at Outfall, and Doheny State Beach – 1000' South Outfall
  • Illinois: Winnetka Elder Park Beach in Cook County
  • Illinois: North Point Marina North Beach in Lake County
  • Louisiana: Constance Beach in Cameron County
  • Louisiana: Gulf Breeze in Cameron County
  • Louisiana: Little Florida in Cameron County
  • Louisiana: Long Beach in Cameron County
  • Louisiana: Rutherford Beach in Cameron County
  • New Jersey: Beachwood Beach West in Ocean County
  • New York: Woodlawn Beach - Woodlawn Beach State Park in Erie County
  • New York: Ontario Beach in Monroe County
  • Ohio: Euclid State Park in Cuyahoga County
  • Ohio: Villa Angela State Park in Cuyahoga County
  • Wisconsin: South Shore Beach in Milwaukee County

It is important to note that, due to their size, some of these beaches have multiple sections that are tested for water quality, and in some instances only certain sections of a beach qualified for the repeat offender list. Where possible, multi-segment beaches have been indicated on this list, along with the specific sections of those beaches identified as repeat offenders.


EPA is responsible for ensuring that recreational waters are safe for swimming. One way of doing so is by establishing and implementing comprehensive federal standards that are protective of public health. These standards, called “recreational water quality criteria,” have not been updated since 1986. And in 2000, the BEACH Act required that EPA modernize standards to better protect beach users from illnesses caused by pathogens, such as viruses and bacteria, in polluted waterways.

The draft criteria that EPA responded with (and is proposing to finalize by October 15) miss a critical opportunity to better protect beachgoers from the dangers of swimming in polluted waters. In fact, EPA recommended bacteria levels as “safe” in recreational waters even though the agency estimated they would permit 1 in 28 swimmers to become ill with gastrointestinal sicknesses such as diarrhea, nausea and vomiting. Additionally, EPA does not adequately consider the risks of other health effects, such as rashes and ear, eye, and sinus infections, all of which are commonly experienced by beachgoers.

In order to address these flaws, EPA should revise the level of acceptable risk when it finalizes its new standards this fall, so that they are more protective of public health, including safeguarding against other, non-gastrointestinal illnesses, like rash and ear infections. EPA should also utilize the best available science and improved testing methods when developing the final criteria.

“Clean beaches are vital to our local, regional and national coastal economies,” said Steve Fleischli, Acting Director of the Water Program at NRDC. “This summer provides a crucial turning point and chance to urge EPA to put people first and strengthen water quality standards. If we want to keep our oceans and tourism industries thriving and healthy, we need our local and federal leaders to step up and adopt smart policies that protect our water, our health, and our beach businesses.”

Top governmental leaders, environmental and science agencies, and more than 10,000 Americans have already submitted public comments to EPA, expressing concern that this proposal, if approved without addressing such flaws, will allow an unacceptably high risk of illness.


EPA estimates that more than 10 trillion gallons of untreated stormwater make their way into our surface waters each year, and there are hundreds of billions of gallons of wastewater, which includes sewage and stormwater, released in combined sewer overflows annually.

The best way to keep this pollution out of America’s beachwater is to prevent it from the start by investing in smarter, greener infrastructure on land, like porous pavement, green roofs, parks, roadside plantings and rain barrels. Green infrastructure addresses stormwater pollution by stopping rain where it falls, preventing the rain from carrying runoff from dirty streets to our beaches, and instead storing it or letting it filter back into the ground naturally.

Green infrastructure solutions reduce the need for end-of-line stormwater treatment, prevent overloaded sewage systems and triggered overflows, and thereby turn rainwater from a huge pollution liability into a plentiful, local water supply resource. These sustainable water practices on land not only restore the health of local waterways and beaches, they also beautify neighborhoods, cool and cleanse the air, reduce asthma and heat-related illnesses, save on heating and cooling energy costs, boost economies and support American jobs.

Cities nationwide are already embracing these innovative stormwater management solutions. Now, our federal government has significant opportunities to clean up water at America’s beaches by incentivizing green infrastructure in communities nationwide. EPA has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to expand the robust deployment of green infrastructure by reforming its national requirements designed to tackle urban runoff. A proposed water pollution rule for stormwater sources, such as new and existing development projects, is expected to be announced by EPA in the coming year.

  • Full the report and zip-code searchable map, click here.
  • For the 5-star rating guide to 200 popular beaches, click here.
  • For broadcast-quality video of solutions for cleaner beachwater, click here.
  • For tips for a safe trip to the beach, click here.

Visit EcoWatch's WATER page for more related news on this topic.


EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
Related Articles from EcoWatch
Recent Stories from EcoWatch