Bummed About U.S. Beaches

A thick cloud of smoke blocks the sunlight as a California Department of Forestry firefighter watches a wildfire as it threatens to jump Highway 243 in Banning, Calif., Thursday, Oct. 26, 2006. (AP Photo/The San Bernardino Sun, Al Cuizon)
AP/San Bernardino Sun, Al Cuizon
Environmentalists want Congress to pass long-delayed national ocean standards to give swimmers and sailors in every state that same information about water cleanliness.

Last year, more than half the nation's 6100 beach warnings or closings were in California, a blow to environmentalists and beach goers alike, reports CBS News Correspondent Jerry Bowen.

But while beach closings may be a sign of dangerous threats to keeping water clean, ecologists say states that don't test their ocean water are an even bigger concern.

That concern is sure to grow as people who want to be close to the waters continue to move to the coasts, bringing pollution with them.

Those states that don't test, and therefore may not close their beaches as readily, are featured on a Beach Bum list compiled by the National Resources Defense Council. This year, it includes Oregon, Washington, Louisiana and Texas.

According to the NRDC, "Only 11 states comprehensively monitor most or all of their beaches and notify the public."

And environmentalists say differences in beach standards from state to state make it hard to compare one state to another, or this year to the last.

The spike in closings at California's beaches in 1999 resulted from the state’s tough new monitoring laws.

Nationwide, says David Beckman of the NRDC, “There are three times more closures this year than last but that’s probably due to the fact that we’re looking for pollution.”

But in states where the government doesn't tell about pollution at beaches, private citizens have to find out themselves.

That’s why David Gibson of the nonprofit Surfrider Foundation takes water samples on Texas' Gulf Coast.

“I have to say my home beach here is probably the most disgusting I’ve seen anywhere that I’ve surfed," Gibson, an environmental geologist, said.

Gibson tests the water in his garage laboratory and later posts the results on the Internet.

Texas officials tell CBS News a government-run program will be underway soon.

But environmentalists say what’s really needed is mandatory, uniform testing by all coastal and Great Lakes states.

Congress is considering a bill, originally proposed in 1997, that would force states on the coasts to submit to guidelines set by the EPA. Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore has endorsed it. His Republican opponent, George W. Bush, has taken no position on it.

“I think it's important to have national legislation that sets a level playing field and lets people know wherever they go to the beach, they can have some confidence that if the beach is ope it's going to be safe for them to swim," said Beckman.

The information is important because a beach's safety can change with the season.

Run-off, for example, is the number one water pollution problem across the country. It occurs when pesticides, fertilizers and waste get washed into public waterways.

In California, it’s at its worst during the winter rains when a trillion gallons of contaminated water drain into the sea.

“We have consistently poor beaches, consistently poor water quality coming out of our storm drains," said Steve Fleischli, who heads Bay Keeper, a private group that tests water quality and tracks down polluters.

“Where the government won’t do it or doesn’t have the resources to do it, that’s where we can step in and fill that gap," Fleischli said.

More than two years ago, the Clinton-Gore administration unveiled a Clean Water Action Plan to solve run-off water pollution. According to the NRDC, that plan "provides guidance to state, local, and tribal governments on restoring and protecting water resources."

How's The Water?
  • Click here for information on ocean and Great Lake beaches.
  • Check here for data on waterseds and inland waterways.

  • Congress hasn't provided all the funding the White House wants for the multi-agency effort. The administration asked for a funding increase of $584 million, or 27 percent in fiscal year 2001.

    But Beckman says even that won't be enough without national standards for how states monitor their beaches.

    “It’s a lot of good intentions but you’re not going to clean up water with good intentions," said Beckman. "We need to treat our beaches the way you treat a national park, a Yosemite or a Yellowstone. People wouldn’t accept those places being closed 300 times a year.”

    According to the EPA, protecting ocean waters is about more than preserving recreational uses. More than 28 million people have jobs in or dealing with coastal waters, a $54 billion industry. Commercial fishing pumps $45 billion into the economy.

    To protect those investments, in 1999, the EPA launched the Beach Action Plan, and the president told the Department of the Interior to improve the system that lets the public know when beaches are safe.