New Bern, NC – The Natural Resources Defense Council has recently issued its 21st annual guide to water quality at vacation beaches with North Carolina ranking in the top 25% of statewide reports.
"Our report Testing the Waters for 2010 found that 4% of water samples for N-C exceeded national standards in 2010 which compares very favorably to an 8% rate of exceedance on average nationally. That places N-C 7th out of 30 states that we covered, so N-C did pretty well last year."
David Beckman is the Water Program Director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a non-profit international environmental advocacy group. The sampling is looking for pathogens that can either sicken people or increase the likelihood of getting sick. While the state compared favorably to the national average, the report wasn't all good news. There were 495 days where alerts and advisories were posted for possible exceedance of bacterial standards more than double 2009's total of 233 and nearly triple 2008's 168 alert and advisory days. Those rising numbers aren't generating too much concern with David Beckman at least not yet.
"I'm always hesitant to draw too many hard and fast conclusions from a year's data or a year's change compared to the previous year. I think you have to see a number of years of a trend before we can really say something unusual is going on so I think we can say for now it was a notable change but its hard to draw a particularly strong conclusion from the data we have just about last year."
Part of the reason for his lack of current concern might be the weather. Beckman says a lot of the alert and advisory days are driven by weather particularly heavy rainfall. In fact the report mentions 15-to-20 inches of rain that fell last September in the southeastern portion of the state and prompted a blanket beach advisory for the region. And heavy rain is the forerunner to the leading cause of beach advisories in North Carolina.
"One is stormwater run-off. Many places across the country, run-off from our cities is not treated at all before its discharged at the beach and that's a significant source of beach water contamination. So for example of the closing and advisory days in N-C where beaches were either closed or the public was warned of a potential health risk, 70% were related to stormwater run-off, about 345 days."
Beckman's biggest concern may not be the number of advisories but the speed in which the public receives them. He says right now the state of the art puts a minimum of 24-to-48 hours between taking a water sample and getting a result.
"We're still using general standards and test approaches that in some cases are 10-20 years old and we're in the process of updating nationally with a focus on, not only the accuracy, but the rapidity of the results so that if you're out there with your children on a Saturday morning it does you no good to know Monday that you shouldn't have gone in the water. You need to know in a timely way, and these beach managers need to be able to test the water and then be able to get information soon enough to be effective managers of the resource."
Beckman says the Environmental Protection Agency is currently working on a "rapid results" test that might get a test drive this summer and next that could alleviate that problem. In the interim those most at risk including children and the elderly might want to avoid going into the water for a 48-to-72 hour period after a heavy rainfall. David Beckman is the Water Program Director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. I'm George Olsen.