11 • 10 • 2015

BWTF: working for better health protection at the beach at the federal, state & local levels

By Mara Dias

Providing adequate water quality monitoring at beaches across the US to protect swimmer and surfer health is one of the main goals of Surfrider's Clean Water Initiative.  Our volunteer-run Blue Water Task Force  (BWTF) water testing program began over 20 years ago in Ventura, Santa Cruz and Orange Counties because the State and local health departments were not providing enough information on the safety of the water at the beach for beach-goers.

Since then the State of California passed AB 411 which requires water testing and public notification programs at recreationally-used beaches from April 1 - October 31,  and all coastal and Great Lake states have followed suit, many prompted by the passage of the BEACH Act of 2000.  Surfrider was one of the driving forces behind the passage of the BEACH Act, because as states started developing beach water testing programs, we wanted to see protective water quality standards implemented consistently and we supported the federal government's role in helping to fund and providing guidance to states on running effective beach programs. 

The BEACH Act has largely been a success.  In 1999 before its passage there were approximately 1,300 coastal beaches being monitored.   As recently as 2013 this number was up to 3,485 beaches across the US. 

Implementation of the BEACH Act has had its challenges as well.  Although originally authorized at $30 million, the EPA BEACH Act grants program has never received more that $10 million, which even at that low level, it has been a hard fight to keep funded in recent years.  Learn more and join in our campaign to fund the BEACH Act here:  support-beach-water-testing-programs

Chronic underfunding means that state and local beach programs do not have the resources they need to provide 100% coverage of our beaches year-round.  This is where Surfrider's Blue Water Task Force program comes in.  Most chapter water testing programs are designed to fill in the gaps and to complement the agency beach programs.  Surfrider is testing beaches that are not covered by the agencies, and we are monitoring potential sources of pollution such as stormwater outlets and rivers and creeks that discharge onto the beach.  The BWTF is also in operation year-round, providing public health protection through the off season, when the lifeguards leave the beaches and health officials stop collecting water samples, but surfers continue to surf and could potentially be exposed to pollution. 

And our work doesn’t stop there.  When our water quality results demonstrate real pollution problems, our volunteers use their data to build community awareness and to motivate local governments to take action to identify and fix the sources of ocean pollution. 

This coordination and support of beach water quality monitoring programs at the federal, state and local level is best seen in action through Surfrider's Blue Water Task Force efforts in Oregon.   There are seven BWTF labs located along the Oregon coast.  For the last decade, these labs have been working to extend the coverage of the relatively young and arguably under-staffed Oregon Beach Monitoring Program.  When President Obama proposed to eliminate all funding for the BEACH Act back in February 2012, the Oregon Governor and both Senators Merkley and Wyden officially submitted requests to Congress asking them to restore program funding at the urging of Surfrider staff and activists in Oregon.  From his position on the EPA Appropriations Sub-committee, Senator Merkley from Oregon has since taken on a leadership role in Congress on this issue.

At the state level, Surfrider has been giving recommendations to the State on how best to implement the new water quality standards that have been passed down from  EPA.  Through a series of public meetings hosted by the OR Department of Environmental Quality, Surfrider members are giving their recommendations for which beaches should remain a priority for monitoring and which standards should be adopted and how they should be applied for optimum public health protection.  Surfrider is also trying to build on their partnership with the State to figure out a way for the State to use our volunteer-generated BWTF data to provide public health protection at more beaches as the State resources may be tied up in implemeting the new water quality criteria in upcoming beach seasons.  Surfrider is also leading other environmental organizations to advocate for state funding for Oregon's Beach Monitoring Program for better security as federal dollars are uncertain and more resources will be needed once the new standards go into effect. 

The best example of the BWTF engaging at the local level is in Newport, Oregon.  Here the  Surfrider chapter has formed a very close relationship with the City of Newport to help them track the sources of pollution that our BWTF data have identified and to implement solutions resulting in improved water quality at the beach.  Read more here.

Our BWTF lab located on the North Coast, is trying to accomplish the same thing in Cannon Beach.  Our water quality data shows a potential pollution problem in the Gower Street Outfall that discharges and flows across the beach.  (view our data here) Surfrider has teamed up with the Ecola Creek Watershed Council to encourage the City of Cannon Beach to inspect their infrastructure to look for potential sources of pollution that can be addressed.   Surfrider's OR Field Coordinator, Ryan Cruse, was able to describe well our interest in supporting public health protection at the beach at the federal, state and local level in this article covered by The Daily Astorian.

Since the BWTF program started up 20 years ago and the BEACH Act passed in 2000, water quality monitoring programs have grown and developed across the country to provide better health protection for beach goers.  With a devoted network of volunteers, Surfrider is committed to seeing these programs survive and thrive so that we can all enjoy a worry-free day at the beach.