State of the Beach/Beach Indicators/Why Indicators

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How do executives know if their business is performing well? They look at costs, revenues, profits, and other indicators of business performance. You would never run a business without knowing your profits, but our state beach managers do not have a set of similar indicators to make decisions about our coastlines. How can we tell if we are effectively protecting our beaches? Right now we often only have anecdotal evidence to evaluate our performance.

Indicators are measures of environmental quality used to assess the status and trends of environmental conditions. They summarize complex information in an easily understood format, and allow states with similar problems to compare issues. Indicators also enable managers to measure progress toward achieving their goals. For example, many states aim to minimize the harmful effects of beach erosion. To determine if they have met this goal, managers could review indicators of beach erosion to see which areas of their shoreline are actively eroding. Indicators could also tell them how many beaches required fill, or how many seawalls they approved. If the measures indicate increased erosion, beach managers could use the indicators to communicate the problem to the public and to lawmakers, and then work toward addressing the problem. Conversely, if the measures indicate erosion is low or decreasing, managers can focus their resources on another goal.

In the area of water quality, most states use bacterial indicators. They measure levels of bacteria to determine if beachgoers can safely surf and swim. If bacterial counts are high, the water probably has other pollutants in it that make it unsuitable for swimming. A high bacteria level indicates poor water quality. Unfortunately, beach managers have only found and tentatively agreed upon indicators for water quality, and not for other aspects of beach health such as those measured in this report.

You can encourage your state to implement a system of indicators by asking your beach managers questions. Do they know how many seawalls they have approved? How many beach access points do they provide in your county or town? Do they know the location of storm drains and sewage outfalls? If managers can implement indicators for other aspects of beach health, they will have an easier time recognizing and fixing beach problems and communicating those problems to state lawmakers and the public. Ultimately, we hope this will result in a better experience at the beach.