NRDC releases beaches scorecard; Florida scores well except for effects of BP oil

06/29/11 Kate Bradshaw
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Tampa Bay Beaches will likely be packed this holiday weekend, and an environmental study out today ranks beaches nationwide on pollution and closures. Despite oil hitting the Panhandle last year, Florida Beaches as a whole didn’t fare too poorly.

"Beaches in Florida, the overall picture is that 4 percent of the samples exceeded national standards in 2010."

Jon Devine, senior lawyer in the water program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the number reflects the percentage of water samples that exceed pollution standards. He said some beaches had alarmingly high rates of water pollution. The highest, he said, tended to be in counties along the Panhandle.

"When you look at how they compared to state standards there were a handful of beaches that stood out as exceeding standards. Commonly a beach named Biochico in Escambia County 62 percent of the time, Hagen's Cove in Taylor County 47 percent of the time and Darniers in Okalusa County at 42 percent of the time."

The statewide average was four percent, which is four points lower than the national average. Florida ranked sixth. New Hampshire ranked first in beach quality of all thirty states monitored. Indiana, Ohio, and Louisiana beaches were the bottom three, with 37 percent of Louisiana’s water samples containing excessive pollution. Devine said last year’s oil disaster had a major impact on gulf coast beaches.

"This was a big deal. It affected nearly 9500 beach days around the Gulf in the last 2 years."

Last year in Florida, more than 1,700 oil advisories were issued on 30 days. For Louisiana, the oil combined with the effects of hurricanes like Katrina and Rita, which the state’s coast is still feeling. NRDC water program director David Beckman said the biggest factor impacting water quality in most places is the pollution that rain washes off land.

"America's beaches have long suffered from pollution including bacteria laden human and animal waste. The biggest known source of this contamination is polluted storm water runoff. When it rains in many cities across the country the water carries trash and chemicals and oil, animal waste, you name it, off the paved surfaces of our communities and into the water."

And, he said, there’s another unpleasant culprit making its way into the water that lines oceans and major lakes.

"The water also often overloads our sewage facilities during storms causing them to overflow and dump raw sewage into surrounding waterways. The US EPA estimates that more than 20 trillion gallons of untreated stormwater makes their way into our surface waters every year."

Beckman said that doesn’t just mean beaches that are less pretty; they actually impact human health.

"The stomach flu, skin rashes, pink eye, ear and nose and throat problems, dysentery, hepatitis, a whole host of things that you want to stay away from. For senior citizens and small kids and people with weak immune systems the results can be particularly severe."

But, he said, there are preventative measures states and municipalities can take.

"The best way to do this, to keep much of the pollution out of our beachwater is to prevent it from the start by investing in smarter green infrastructure on land. Like porous pavement, green roofs, parks, roadside plantings and rain barrels."

Cities and counties throughout Florida have been trying to fight runoff in a different way. In the past couple of years, dozens have adopted summertime restrictions on nitrogen and phosphorous fertilizer, which were known to feed algae blooms and cause dead zones. Tampa approved a strong rainy-season fertilizer ban last week to preempt a weaker statewide fertilizer law going into effect Friday. Beckman said any move to stop water pollution will boost a beach’s score.

"Beaches that score well typically have to take an action to either treat the water coming out of the drain, don't have the drains in the first place or some combination of that. Pollution avoidance of course is the first thing you need to do to score well."

According to the report, Tampa Bay area beaches that exceeded pollution standards most often were, Ben. T. Davis Beach, Palma Sola South, and the Courtney Campbell Causeway. Among the cleanest, at zero percent, were Ft. DeSoto’s North Beach, Pass-A-Grille Beach, Madeira Beach, Casperson Public Beach, North Jetty Park Beach, and Coquina Beach South.

Previous WMNF news coverage of the fertilizer ordinance

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