BeachesJust in time for the Fourth of July holiday weekend, the environmental watchdog group Natural Resources Defense Council released its 21st annual report card of 200 of the nation's cleanest and dirtiest beaches based on water quality.

While vacationers who booked beach places months in advance for this holiday weekend may not be able to change their plans, the report reveals which beaches could have issues with contaminated water, which may help keep beachgoers safe.

This year's report, "Testing the Waters: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches," looked at the 2010 beach water testing results -- the most recent results available -- of more than 3,000 locations nationwide and gave star ratings to 200 beaches nationwide. Beaches in the Southeast, along the New York-New Jersey coast and in the Delaware, Maryland and Virginia regions had the cleanest beaches.The highest rating of five stars was awarded to just four beaches: Rehoboth Beach and Dewey Beach in Delaware, Park Point Lafayette Community Club Beach in Minnesota, and Hampton Beach State Park in New Hampshire. The beaches got a star in each of five categories: water quality, water quality in the past three years, water testing, prompt issuing of advisories, and posting of closings or advisories.

The report found that there were 24,091 beach closings or advisory days at the nation's beaches last year -- a 29% increase from 2009. The group attributed the jump to heavy rainfall in Hawaii, unidentified contamination in California, and oil washing up on Gulf of Mexico shores from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster.

The report also showed 70% of the closings or advisory days were issued because water tests showed high bacteria levels. The Great Lakes region had the most frequently contaminated beach water, with 15% percent of samples exceeding public health standards.

At a news conference announcing the report, NRDC Water Program Director David Beckman said a universal problem with water testing across the country is the time it takes between gathering samples and getting test results -- usually 24 to 48 hours. "You can have a whole summer weekend of people using the beach and find out Monday morning that it was unsafe."

When beach water exceeds health standards, swimmers risk developing infections and are sometimes exposed to more serious diseases like dysentery, hepatitis, cholera and typhoid fever, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

"[But] the pollution at the beach is preventable," Beckman said. He pointed to measures, like porous pavement, that could reduce storm runoff and reduce pollution that gets washed into rivers and oceans.

Beachgoers can take precautions to protect themselves, said NRDC senior attorney Jon Devine, who recommended the following steps:

  • Not swimming within 72 hours of a rain or in front of storm drains
  • Using common sense. If the water "looks or smells funny," Devine said, "don't go in."
  • Picking up your garbage from the beach trip
  • Not feeding wildlife on the beach
  • Cleaning up after your pets

The EPA recommends beachgoers find out if the beach they want to go to is monitored regularly and posted for closures or swimming advisories. If an area isn't tested regularly, choose a swimming area with good water circulation and avoid discharge pipes.

Last year, Gulf Coast and Florida beaches launched a marketing campaign to tout the safety of their beaches in the wake of the oil spill. The NRDC included a special report on the oil spill, detailing the impact on Gulf Coast beaches. As of June 15, 2011, four beach segments in Louisiana had been closed since the spill on April 20, 2010, while three Florida beaches are still under an oil spill notice.

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