Improve Beach Water Quality

American beaches violate public health standards thousands of times a year, mostly because of bacteria carried in raw sewage, animal waste, and stormwater runoff that can make people sick. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that up to 3.5 million people a year become ill from contact with sewer overflows. Often, victims don’t attribute their condition to exposure to contaminated water, since they may not realize that their rashes, stomach flu, hepatitis, or other illnesses were caused by swimming in polluted water.

Cannon Beach near Tolovana Park, Oregon
Zoran Ivanovic/AlpamayoPhoto/iStock

NRDC pushes for policy and infrastructure solutions that make America’s beaches cleaner and safer for swimming. We start by tackling the problem at its source. For more than two decades, NRDC has published an annual report called Testing the Waters, which tracks water quality at beaches around the country. Our research has found that the biggest cause of beach closings and advisories is stormwater runoff.

When it rains, water rushes over sidewalks, roads, and parking lots and picks up all kinds of chemicals along the way. In many cities, that stormwater is fed into sewage treatment plants, but if flows are too heavy, runoff can find its way straight into waterways—including the waves that lap local beaches. Yet many communities fail to address this pollution. NRDC has won a series of influential court cases that compelled municipalities to reduce the amount of runoff ending up in beach water.

We encourage government officials to turn to green infrastructure—things like permeable pavement, grassy traffic medians, pocket parks, and green roofs—which has been proven to reduce runoff. It captures rain where it falls and sends it back into the ground instead of into sewage drains and waterways. NRDC also helps cities, counties, and states embrace green infrastructure. Our experts call attention to its many benefits, including higher property values, increased green space, and affordability. Green infrastructure is, in fact, often much cheaper than cement drains and other conventional infrastructure. And our advocates push for policies that promote these projects, such as the Los Angeles ordinance requiring large development projects to capture a certain amount of rainwater on-site.

We also work at the national level, calling on the EPA to deliver long-promised reforms to national stormwater regulations and to strengthen the criteria it uses for contaminants in beach water to better protect public health.

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