It’s July, it’s hot, and – as long as there are no big sharks around – you’d like to go swimming. There’s only one problem: you get to the beach and find out you might get sick if you go in the water. In New England, it’s more likely than not that the unhealthy water condition was caused by polluted runoff from a storm. Mark Twain said, if you don’t like the weather in New England, wait a few minutes – but, these days, you may be waiting a full day or more to go to the beach even after the sun has come out.
In New England, over 800 beaches are monitored under the Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health (BEACH) Act of 2000, administered and tracked by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The BEACH Act allows funding for coastal states, territories, and tribes to monitor beaches for public health risks and inform the public of those risks.
A recent EPA BEACH report shows unhealthy swimming conditions in New England aren’t going away. In fact, they may be getting worse. A 2012 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) show closures and advisories at our beaches in 2011 reached the third highest level in the 22 years that NRDC has been keeping track.
The things that make is sick in the water mostly come from the land, and we need a better way to manage this foul problem. The pollution in our beaches is rooted in the way we plan and maintain our wastewater, roads, parking lots, and coastal development. Unhealthy swimming conditions that result in a beach advisory or closure can result from sewer overflows, treatment plant malfunctions, stormwater runoff, waste from boats, leakage of septic systems, or pet and wildlife waste.
Problems caused by a series of small sources add up in big ways and are some of the hardest to solve. The solutions require comprehensive planning at multiple levels of government and management. New England states have taken important steps to monitor and inform the public about dangerous swimming conditions, but the next steps will be addressing the causes of beach closures and advisories. This will involve a variety of decision makers and stakeholders – from transportation planners, to municipal wastewater managers, to individual property owners and developers – just to name a few.
Regional Ocean Planning is a process that allows everyone who has a stake in the health of the ocean to have a say in how it’s managed. It’s a process that can be used to address problems like this by providing a platform for everyone from wastewater managers to beachgoers to talk about how their decisions can impact the value of our resources. We need this type of planning and cooperation to help ensure that a day at the beach is, well, a day at the beach.