Explanation of Indicator
Coastal water quality is an important issue from public health, environmental, and economic standpoints. A variety of diseases, including gastroenteritis, dysentery, and hepatitis, can be carried into coastal areas by sewage-contaminated waters. The primary cause of beach closings is high levels of microbial pathogens from human and animal wastes. These wastes enter coastal waters from municipal sewage treatment plants, combined sewer overflows, sanitary sewer overflows, urban stormwater systems, and as polluted runoff from land. Other causes of beach closings include rain, high bacteria levels, and oil spills. The environmental impacts of coastal water pollution include degradation of marine and benthic habitats and marine animal fatalities. Coastal water pollution also has economic impacts: every day a beach is closed increases the adverse economic consequences. Failing to invest in clean water costs states potential jobs, tourism dollars, and economic growth.1
The state of Florida does not explicitly require any monitoring of ocean and bay coastal waters. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has bacteria standards specifically for marine waters designated for swimming, but DEPís monitoring is not directed toward swimmer safety at recreational beaches, focusing instead on environmental protection. Of Floridaís 35 coastal counties, only nine conduct monitoring for swimmer safety.
This indicator provides information on the number of days of beach closures and advisories. The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) followed three guidelines in compiling this data: (1) Closings and advisories are not differentiated in the data listings; (2) Permanent closings (beaches closed for an entire summer or longer) and extended closings (beaches closed for six weeks or more) are noted, but not included in the totals; and (3) Closings or advisories issued for an individual beach for one day are counted as one closing/advisory. Starting with the 1994 data, the reason for the beach closure/advisory is included with the data.
This information is found in Testing the Waters, published annually by the Natural Resources Defense Council. Copies of these reports may be obtained by contacting the Natural Resources Defense Council, 40 West 20th Street, New York, New York 10011, or at (212) 727-4511.
The Testing the Waters reports are available in hard copy format for a cost of $7.50 plus $1.45 shipping and handling.
The NRDC data are collected for each state by county and/or municipality. The NRDC compiles this information annually; however, each reporting unitís frequency of collection varies.
The data presented herein reflect only nine of the 35 coastal counties in Florida. The NRDC obtains its information by sending questionnaires to states and municipalities. The data received are sometimes incomplete and inconsistent among reporting units. The data may also be for the previous year, since some respondents do not return the information in time for inclusion in the current annual report. There currently is no uniform bacteria standard or testing procedure to monitor coastal water pollution. Therefore, each state or local municipality adopts its own standards and testing procedures. Since beach water monitoring is not required, the data presented only reflect a portion of Floridaís coastal areas.
The data for number of days of beach closures/advisories do not indicate any clear trend in coastal water quality for the nine Florida counties represented. The majority of the beach closings/advisories in 1992 came from Dade County (506 days). Dade County closes beaches to swimmers anytime a spill is reported and verified by laboratory evidence. Another explanation for the higher number of closings in 1992 is that when high bacteria levels are recorded in Pasco County, the beaches are closed until the next sampling date (which may be the following month or longer). Thus, if a beach is closed during the first week of a month, it may remain closed unnecessarily for 30 days or longer, thereby inflating the number of beach closure/advisory days.
The number of beach closings reported for 1993 decreased from 1992ís level because of fewer closings in Pasco County and Dade County. According to the NRDC, health department officials in both counties attributed this difference to abnormally high rainfall levels in October and November of 1992. It is important to note that the data for 1992 do not include beach closures due to Hurricane Andrew.
As illustrated in the following graph, in 1994 the principal reason for closing or placing advisories on beaches was stormwater runoff. This indicates that Floridaís areas that monitor coastal water quality do not have stormwater management practices adequate to prevent pollution. However, the absence of historical data makes it impossible to ascertain whether the reporting areas have improved their stormwater management practices. The second biggest reason for closing beaches in 1994 was rainfall (preemptive). This is due primarily to the fact that the City of St. Petersburg closes its beaches when rainfall exceeds the set limits, regardless of the existence of a public health threat.
Simply monitoring coastal water quality and closing beaches when there is a public health threat will not solve Floridaís coastal pollution problem. The reasons for closing the beaches need to be monitored as well, so that the sources of coastal pollution can be addressed and remedied in order to prevent future problems.