Watch out for bacteria on the beach

March 4, 2012 12:01 am

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From sea to shining sea, Americans love the beach.

The average citizen hangs out on an ocean shore, Great Lake or river about 10 days a year, according to a federal estimate. And the money they spend is crazy, nearly $6 trillion in 2007, 85 percent of all tourism revenue, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

But money doesn't always buy happiness at the beach. About 3.5 million people each year get sick enough to throw up or get diarrhea after splashing in water containing harmful bacteria, according to an Environmental Protection Agency estimate. This is why environmentalists are criticizing the Obama administration's proposal this month to cut all funding for states to monitor contamination at beaches starting in 2013.

The president's budget request has a long way to go before passing, but "if it goes through, the states are going to have a tough choice: cut back the number of beaches they monitor or find state revenue to cover their efforts," said Jon Devine, an attorney for the water program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, or NRDC.

"I find it hard to speculate about how it might play out, but ... fewer instances of monitoring and less frequent monitoring," Mr. Devine said. "The beach may well be open, but the states will be less well equipped to provide more current information."

The Environmental Protection Agency, which has given about $110 million to states under the Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act since its passage in 2000, defended the budget cut as the right decision in austere times.

Beach monitoring is important, but after 12 years of funding, states now have the technical expertise to go it alone and continue testing "without federal support," EPA spokesman Brendan Gilfillan said in a statement. Last year that support totaled $10 million.

Except there's one problem, said Steve Fleischli, a senior attorney at the NRDC: States, which are also cutting budgets, don't have the money.

California, which received $507,000 for testing this year, would be forced to reduce water quality testing that's already been dramatically scaled back by government austerity cuts, officials there said. The state reaps about $11 billion yearly from beach tourism.

Virginia relies on its $273,000 in federal funding for all testing on its 75-mile coast, so cutting it would have an impact, officials said. Virginia's ocean economy generated $5 billion, according to the NOEP.


First Published 2012-03-03 23:33:27

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