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.
October 30, 2011
Federal and State regulations in regard to beach testing often have many limitations in relation to the uniform nature of the legislation and sets of procedures that states must follow. However, aquatic ecosystems are very diverse and require specialized attention in order to properly test for water quality criteria. The BEACH Act, which is legislation that sets a standardized method for testing for fecal indicator bacteria (FIB) on a daily, monthly and yearly basis, was developed by the EPA and enacted in 2000. Although this can effectively increase the health of the population through reporting methods, this mode of Federal and State regulation has a number of limitations.
The BEACH Act tests three different FIB, which include Enterococci, Fecal Coliforms and Total Coliforms. However, these FIB often times do not have a direct relationship to sickness and are oftentimes naturalized in the environment through nonhuman waste sources such as animals. Methods for testing are also outdated and as such, notification of beach contamination is often coupled with a lag time. The standard for EPA FIB testing under The BEACH Act is culture-based methods, which take up to 24-48 hours to process. Moreover, new rapid testing methods contain a high error rate, which pose a barrier to limiting recreational waterborne illness. This can leave the public unaware of current beach conditions, which can pose serious health risks (Gross 2004). While testing and beach monitoring has advanced in recent years, as noted by a steady increase in beach closures, not much has been done to curve point and non point sources of pollution, which is the main issue at hand. Until point and non point sources of pollution are addressed, marine ecosystems will see a steady rise in closures and no manifested gain from advances in testing methods (Bohem 2009).
Local oversight of beach testing, however, may pose as the solution to the BEACH Act’s deficiencies. According to a recent study, single FIB measurements (as imposed by Federal and State agencies) are not accurate representations of an ecosystem’s true FIB concentrations. Spatial and temporal differences in testing can lead to great variability amongst FIB readings (Boehm, Fuhrman, MRSE, and Grant 1-2). Additionally, supplementary factors including, “…the highly dynamic currents that transport them, and the complex biological and physicochemical processes that influence the rate at which they are removed from the water column” also greatly influence FIB concentrations (Boehm, Fuhrman, MRSE, and Grant 1-2). Due to this high range of FIB variability concentrations within a single environment, extensive monitoring is required – including multiple daily water tests involving temporal and spatial variation – in order to accurately assess FIB concentrations.
Evidently, such monitoring would need to be conducted by local authorities that have a better understanding of the environment’s unique biological and physicochemical properties. In addition to obtaining more accurate FIB readings, local agencies would also be able to better assess the source of FIB than federal or state authorities as FIB can originate from several local sources – from septic tanks and urban runoff to fecal disposal from boats and natural animal sources. As local authorities pinpoint the FIB source, solutions for cleanup would be more deemed possible and effective. “The best way to protect swimmers from beach water pollution is to prevent it” according to Megan Severson from Wisconsin Environment, “A key solution is investing in smarter, greener infrastructure on land – like porous pavement, green roofs, parks, roadside plantings and rain barrels” preventing overloading sewage systems and polluted storm-drain water from hitting the beach. Clearly, Federal and State agencies who solely visit the site when required for testing, would not be as qualified to take into account all the unique factors of the ecosystem in their FIB readings, let alone provide a successful solution.
Boehm, Alexandria, et al. “A sea change ahead for recreational water quality criteria”. Journal of Water and Health. 07.1 (2009): 9-20.
Boehm, Alexandra B., Jed A. Fuhrman, Robert D. MRSE, and Stanely B. Grant. “Tiered Approach for Identification of a Human Fecal Pollution Source at a Recreational Beach: Case Study at Avalon Bay, Catalina Island, California.” USC Dornsife College: Environment, Science, and Technology. n.d. 1-2. Web. 18 Oct 2011. <http://dornsife.usc.edu/labs/fuhrman/Documents/Publications/Tiered%20Approach.pdf>
Gross, Jason. “No Day at the Beach”. Scientific American. 19 July 2004. 1-2. Web. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=no-day-at-the-beach
Mednick, Adam. “Preciting Beach Water Quality.” Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, 22 Apr 2010. Web 17 Oct 2011. <http://dnr.wi.gov/org/es/science/contaminants/beach.htm>.
Severson Megan. “Clean Water News.” Wisonsin Environment. Wisconsin Environment, 29 Jun 2011. Web. 17 Oct 2011. <http://www.wisconsinenvironment.org/news-releases/clean-water2/clean-water-news/wisconsins-beach-closings-increase-wisconsin-environment-calls-for-better-protections>.
Stephen Holle/Birka Burnison