New Jersey may have oil refineries, a great deal of New York City’s garbage, suburban sprawl, and the New Jersey Turnpike. But according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, it also has some of the country's cleanest beaches for swimming. Los Angeles, on the other hand, may be a beach town, but its beaches are among the most dangerous in the country to take a dip.
It’s not pleasant to think about the real meaning of those signs warning beachgoers not to swim because of bacteria. Most pollution that streams into coastal waters comes from storm water runoff and sewage overflows. When rainwater flows down streets, it picks up the dirt, oil, pesticides, animal waste, and trash that’s accumulated on the streets and flushes it into the ocean. Sewage systems sometimes drain into the ocean, too. The ocean might still look inviting, but after a storm, going for a dip would be like jumping into a puddle pooling by a city street corner.
After decades of monitoring beach pollution, groups like NRDC and California’s Heal the Bay say water quality has improved. NRDC’s annual report usually comes out mid-summer; last year, it found that the number of samples did not meet federal water quality standards stayed stable from the previous year, even though the the Gulf Coast oil spill pushed up the number of beach closings and advisories. Last week, Heal the Bay's annual beach report card concluded that water quality in the past year has been between “very good” and “excellent”—93 percent of the California beaches it monitored received an A or B grade from the group. And even though seven of the 10 most polluted beaches the group identified were in Los Angeles County, researchers found that the county’s beaches had improved from the year before. Now, the Environmental Protectional Agency is working on regulations that would allow beach water to be polluted for a maximum of one out of every four days of the year.
A stormy day at the shore can ruin a beach vacation. Most viruses swimmers encounter won’t kill them, but they can cause vomiting and fevers. And the most polluted water can be home to diseases like hepatitis and cholera, the EPA warns. After a storm has washed pollutants into the water, beachgoers are advised to keep out of the water for the next three days. That means the dredging New York and New Jersey took on Thursday should have kept swimmers out of the ocean today, the first day of Memorial Day weekend and unofficial start of summer—a feat requiring immense self-control.
Groups like Heal the Bay are working to improve monitoring and strengthen federal regulations for water quality. But one of the best ways to keep beach water clean is to keep storm water from overflowing sewers and pouring towards the coast at all. That requires building green roofs and parks in cities and installing rain barrels and cisterns. Investing in green infrastructure will not only create lush, healthy spaces in cities, it will mean a safe dip in the ocean on your next trip to the beach.