April 22, 2012
In 2000, Congress passed the BEACH Act, requiring the regular testing and monitoring of recreational water quality in order to reduce the likelihood of gastrointestinal and other diseases in swimmers. After the BEACH Act was signed into federal law, it became the federal government’s and its respective administrative agencies’ (like the EPA) responsibility to distribute funds amongst state and local governments to encourage regular monitoring. The act set a strict and consistent uniformity in national water quality monitoring that was nonexistent before its implementation in 2000—prior to that, some states including Washington and Wisconsin did not even have monitoring programs. However, difficult economic times in the U.S. has brought increasing pressure to tighten budgets, and beach monitoring is by no means exempt: the Environmental Protection Agency released its budget, which included a $10 million cut in grants that support frequent and widespread testing for fecal indicator bacteria at beaches, a cut sizeable enough to drastically reduce testing and force monitoring responsibilities almost solely on state and local governments. Though budgets are tight, continued federal oversight and funding for beach monitoring will be the most effective way to ensure that surfers and swimmers are safe.
For the last 12 years, the federal government has funded state and local governments to carry out various methods of water quality monitoring, the most common being measurement of fecal indicator bacteria (FIB) levels. As of 2012, the number of beaches regularly being monitored for water-borne disease had climbed to 36,000; however, if federal grants are completely taken away, state and local governments might not have sufficient funds to maintain such a rigorous monitoring process. Currently, some states receive up to 80% of their money for beach monitoring from the federal government, and in coastal areas which depend on tourism to supplement this money the concern is that there will not be a reliable year-round source of support to continue testing.
The beach monitoring system currently in place is not without flaws. Many researchers argue that current testing is severely inadequate, and that in addition to reversing cuts, more money should be directed to research and data collection. Recent tests at beaches across the country have indicated that as much as 21% of tested water samples exceeded the maximum loads of FIB set forth by the EPA. The methods of data collection also need improvement: federal funds would help research about faster, more specific and more effective ways of determining water quality. An end to funding will cause research to go significantly slower or, completely stop.
On an environmental level, control of and standards for water testing set forth by several different entities rather than one organization will be very ineffective in keeping an even standard of water quality. Neighboring counties may wet different FIB load limits, or due to tight budgets some cities may choose to only choose to monitor high-traffic beaches, leaving wetland areas without testing. Ocean currents could transport FIB from areas of lower regulation or monitoring. Low-traffic but ecologically fragile ecosystems may not receive the monitoring they need and become severely contaminated without regulatory action.
With almost every aspect of government facing a tight budget squeeze, there is no easy solution to beach testing and funding; however, when the costs and benefits are weighed, federal funding will be vital to ensuring that every swimmer, surfer, and sun-bather in the United States can know that they are safe from water-born illnesses.
Britanny Cheng and Kali Staniec are undergraduates in the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.