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Closures of beaches on the rise nationwide

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SAN DIEGO — Beach closings and advisories because of high bacteria levels are on the rise nationwide, according to a new report that awards high praise for pollution control to only five beach areas, all on the East Coast.

The nationwide survey released Thursday by the Natural Resources Defense Council also singles out four states as "beach bums" for failing to regularly monitor their coastlines.

There were 6,160 beach closings and advisories nationwide in 1999, with 70 percent due to bacteria associated with sewage or polluted runoff — even with drought conditions limiting runoff, according to the council's 10th annual report, "Testing the Waters: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches."

The report presents a mixed picture of the beaches along the coasts and Great Lakes, noting that better monitoring may account for part of the increase. Even so, many states still don't follow federal guidelines or don't monitor at all.

"The good news is that America's waters are generally cleaner than they were 25 years ago, when rivers were burning and lakes were dying," the authors wrote.

"The bad news is that, at the dawn of the 21st century, about 40 percent of U.S. waters are still too polluted for uses such as swimming and fishing and for supporting aquatic life."

Louisiana, Oregon, Texas and Washington state were deemed "beach bums" for lacking both regular beach monitoring and a public notification system when the water is polluted.

Five "beach buddies" were found to have regular monitoring that based pollution levels on federal guidelines, always closed beaches when appropriate and had few closings or advisories. The "beach buddies" were East Haven Town Beach in Connecticut; North Beach and Oceanside at the Assateague Island National Seashore in Maryland; and Revere Beach and Short Beach in Massachusetts.

"The surprising thing was how few beaches met (beach buddy) criteria," said Mark Dorfman, a principal author of the study. "It really speaks to the need for more of a focus on really being stewards of our public beaches."

While last year's 6,160 advisories and closings is down from 1998, the report notes that 1998 was an El Nio year with heavy rains that caused a spike in beach closings and advisories in California. A better comparison to 1999 would be 1997, when there were 4,153 beach closings and advisories nationwide.

And the 10-year trend shows an overall increase in beach advisories and closings across the country, the NRDC said.

The report's findings were no surprise to environmentalists in beach communities like San Diego, where there have been 343 sewage spills this year. Contamination warning signs have become a common, said Donna Frye, a spokeswoman for the Center for Marine Conservation.

"It's wrong to see signs posted on our beautiful bay," Frye said. "It's wrong to think that everything is OK because it's not."

Besides high bacteria levels, 14 percent of beach closings and advisories nationwide were due to known pipeline breaks or sewage treatment plant failures; 10 percent came after heavy storms; and 6 percent were due to algae, chemicals or unknown causes.

A direct comparison among states is impossible because most use different monitoring standards and check beaches with varying frequency.

California, which has comprehensive monitoring, had the highest number of advisories or closings in 1999, with at least 3,547. Florida, with limited monitoring, was next with 671, followed by the Virgin Islands (limited) with 307, Indiana (comprehensive) with at least 269, and Ohio (comprehensive) with 257.

Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi, listed as "beach bums" in 1998, were singled out this year out for improvements in monitoring and public notification.