Report: Action needed to improve water quality near many U.S. beaches

Summer is here, school is out and families are heading to the beach, where the motto is “come on in, the water’s fine.”

Well, most of the time, anyway.

The Natural Resource Defense Council’s 24th annual beach water quality report ranks Louisiana among the states with some of the highest percentage of water samples that exceed federal recommendations for beach swim advisories.

Louisiana was joined at the bottom of this list by Ohio, Alaska, Mississippi and Maine.

“Too many of America’s beaches remain sick,” Steve Fleischli, director of the NRDC water program, said during a news conference Wednesday morning.

According to the report, Louisiana has 25 beach locations where water samples are taken. In 2013, 836 samples were taken, with 19 percent of those samples coming in above the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Beach Action Value. This new, tougher-to-meet Beach Action Value water quality measurement was voluntary in 2013, which means many states, including Louisiana, saw an increase in the percentage of tests that exceeded this value.

Since the Beach Action Value is not an official requirement, the state uses the EPA standard that has been in place for years for the beach advisories, said Ken Pastorick, public information officer with Department of Health and Hospitals.

In addition, there is no evidence that there is an uptick in people suffering from stomach problems after a visit to a beach, and it’s unlikely any numbers related to illnesses would be worth much since most people would treat any symptoms with over-the-counter medicines.

“Most folks enjoy beaches in Louisiana all summer and don’t have any problems,” he said.

Tenney Sibley, chief sanitarian with the DHH Office of Public Health, said anyone with health concerns that would cause a weak immune system should check the DHH website or pay attention to any advisory postings at their particular beach.

If a person has cuts or open wounds, they should take precautions, she said. In short, people should use common sense and evaluate the risks of getting into any open water.

In Louisiana, the 25 beach locations have water sampled every week between May and October looking for enterococci and fecal coliform bacteria. If found at high enough levels, these indicators of sewage pollution and other unhealthy bacteria can cause infections, disease or rashes, according to DHH.

When levels of these bacteria get high enough in a certain area, DHH posts swim advisories at the beach area and online. This doesn’t mean a beach is closed but, instead, serves as a public alert that bacteria in the water is above EPA levels so people can evaluate their risk, Pastorick said.

The report calls for support for a new rule put forward by EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers called the Clean Water Protection Rule to help clarify what is covered under the Clean Water Act after court rulings in 2001 and 2006. The proposed rule, which is open for public comment until Oct. 20, clarifies that seasonal and rain-dependent streams would be covered under the act, as would many wetlands near waterways.

Wetlands help clean up stormwater runoff that carries bacteria to beach areas, so better protecting these areas would, in turn, provide healthier beaches, said Jon Devine, NRDC senior water attorney.

A second recommendation in the report is to improve methods for reducing stormwater runoff and sewage overflows into streams and rivers by investing in “green infrastructure.” This green infrastructure includes different strategies that help retain rainwater for slower release, clean up water by running it through wetlands or vegetation, or allow rain to soak into the ground rather than run off through porous pavement.

Discussion about making these kinds of improvements in Baton Rouge have gained new ground recently, and New Orleans has been working on the idea for a number of years.

Follow Amy Wold on Twitter, @awold10.