Beaches in Maryland and across the U.S. are closing more often, the result of high bacteria levels caused by rain washing pollution from suburban sprawl into waterways, a new report says.
Two of the unhealthiest beaches in the country last year were on the Chesapeake Bay, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council report card on swimming areas.
Hacks Point, a small community beach on the shores of the Bohemia River in Cecil County, was one of six beaches nationally labeled a "beach bum," because bacteria levels exceeded federal health standards 60 percent of the times it was tested by the government last summer, the NRDC report says.
Bay Shore Campground and Beach, a private recreational area near Rock Hall in Kent County, was nearly as bad, failing 56 percent of the times it was sampled for bacteria levels last summer, according to the report.
"These are among the most contaminated beaches in the nation, and it means that people are probably swimming in bacteria from human or animal waste," said Nancy Stoner, director of the clean water project at the NRDC, a New York-based environmental organization.
Beaches along the Atlantic Ocean tend to have much cleaner water than those along the bay, which has well-documented pollution problems, Stoner said. For example, Ocean City's beaches failed bacteria standards only 3 percent of the time last year, the report says.
Nationally, the health of water at beaches has continued to worsen each of the 17 years the NRDC has issued its annual report card.
Last year, more than 25,000 swimming days were lost at the nation's 3,500 beaches because of health advisories. That was more than double the number of no-swim days from the year before, according to the report.
The main culprits are aging, leaky sewage and storm-water systems, as well as "careless urban sprawl in coastal areas" that destroys wetlands, dunes and beach grass that act as filters for pollution.
Kathy Brohawn, chief of the beaches program at the Maryland Department of Environment, said it's too simplistic to say pollution problems are getting worse every year.
For example, there was an unusual amount of heavy rain last year, which tends to wash more pollutants onto beaches, Brohawn said. Also, increased monitoring could be playing a role in the growing number of health advisories, she said.
In an attempt to pinpoint where beach contamination is coming from, Maryland started using a new system of computers last fall that analyze whether beaches are near storm-water outfalls or sewage plants, she said.
"We want to find out what's the cause of these elevated bacteria levels ... so we can get to the bottom of the problem and solve it," Brohawn said.
In Maryland last year, 241 swimming days were lost because of health advisories at the state's highest-priority beaches - those monitored weekly because they have many visitors or are near pollution sources. That was compared to 19 days in 2005, the NRDC report says. Last year's total was the highest at least since 2000.
For example, last year Gunpowder State Park in Baltimore County was closed on June 7 and again July 7-11 and Aug. 31 through Sept. 4 because of high bacteria levels.
So far this year, Maryland's 81 coastal beaches are failing water-quality standards at about the same rate as last year, according to state figures. Local health departments have issued 40 warnings this summer not to swim at beaches, compared with 41 at this point last year.
Chuck Smyser, environmental health director for Cecil County, said the problems with the Hacks Point beach last summer were likely caused by large amounts of rain flushing bacteria off of farms, parking lots and other areas.
"I'm not disputing their figures, but that seems a little dramatic," he said of NRDC calling Hacks Point one of the six worst beaches in the nation.
Kim Coble, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said one solution is increased federal funding for conservation programs that encourage farmers to reduce their fertilizer runoff.
These six beaches failed public health standards more than half the time they were tested last year, a report says.
Hacks Point, Maryland
Beachwood Beach West, New Jersey
Venice State Beach, California
Bay Shore Campground, Maryland
Jackson Park Beach, Illinois
Avalon Beach, California