Can an early morning swim make you sick? In some places, it can. The era of pristine beaches glimmering in the reflection of pure ocean or lake water may be an idea lost in the pre pollution days.
Polluted water from storm drains contaminate the beach in some places. Rashes, pinkeye, stomach bugs, respiratory infections, meningitis, hepatitis can strike an unlucky beachgoer who gets into dirty water. In fact, researchers have estimated that across Southern California alone, anywhere from 600,000 to four million beachgoers come down with a gastrointestinal ailment each year.
Controlling contaminated water is improving in many places but water pollution is a persistent and widespread problem at many lake, ocean, Gulf, and Great Lakes beaches. According to NRDC’s annual beach report card, Testing the Waters, American beaches closed or posted swimming advisories more than 20,000 times last year. Most of these closings were due to high levels of bacteria in the water—an indicator of contamination from human and animal waste. For 8 out of the past 9 years, beach closings and advisories have topped the 20,000 mark.
The major known source of beach pollution isn’t careless litterbugs on the beach—oddly enough, it’s rain. In our heavily paved, concrete environment, rainwater doesn’t soak back into the ground or evaporate back to the air as it should. Instead, it flows off the hard surfaces of streets, driveways, parking lots and rooftops, picking up dirt, garbage, pet waste, motor oil and other pollutants, and carries it straight into the nearest ocean, lake, or stream. This storm water (as little as a half-inch of rain in some places) can also overwhelm sewer systems and trigger the discharge of sewage (hundreds of billions of gallons of mucky water every year) into waters where people swim.
Several forward-thinking cities around the country, including Philadelphia and New York City, are starting to tackle this pollution with innovative “green” infrastructure. Rather than building more tanks and pipes and tunnels to contain and control dirty water, these cities are turning to greener solutions that allow rainwater to do what it’s supposed to do—evaporate or soak back into the earth. Plantings on rooftops, roadside trees, parks and other greenery, porous pavements, wetlands and rain barrels all trap storm water where it falls, and let it evaporate or filter into the ground instead of becoming a conduit for pollution.
Tackling storm water with green infrastructure represents a major shift in thinking on the part of city officials. The engineers who run water and sewer systems tend to think that the solution to all water problems lies in steel and concrete. Working to preserve and expand a series of wetlands and streams in Staten Island as a replacement for storm sewers—the Bluebelt—engineers were highly skeptical. But they were convinced when the project successfully moved water as well as cleaned it, at a lower cost than building out tanks and pipes.
As seen in Staten Island and elsewhere, green infrastructure really works. But most of the country is still very much behind the curve in implementing this cost-effective pollution control. The EPA has a major opportunity to drive the growth of more green infrastructure nationwide, as it revises its standards for storm water management.
The long-awaited revisions could—and must—establish clear standards for buildings, roads, parking lots, and other developed sites to retain storm water. These standards will create incentives for the development of more rain-soaking green infrastructure across the country. It’s not only a cost-effective way to reduce water pollution at our beaches and elsewhere—green infrastructure improves neighborhoods by adding green space, cooling and cleaning the air, reducing flooding, and enhancing local water supplies.
When going to the beach this summer, stay safe. Check NRDC’s beach map to find water quality information from your favorite beach, and see how well officials protect swimmers through frequent monitoring and timely reporting on water quality issues. NRDC also issues star ratings for 200 popular beaches—13 beaches earned five stars last year, while 11 landed on the repeat offenders list.
Avoid swimming for 24 hours after it rains and 72 hours after a heavy rain, and stay away from drain pipes. Teach kids not to swallow water. Kids seem to be far more prone to getting sick at the beach, in part because they’re more likely to duck their heads under and drink water.
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