State of the Beach/Findings

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Surfrider's overall findings from research into the state of our beaches and coastal waters continue to point out the need for more comprehensive collection and interpretation of data so that we can track the health of our beaches and the nearshore ocean environment. The data that does exist points to continued and widespread water quality, coastal access, erosion response and beach ecology concerns. All in all, our coastal managers could do more to protect this valuable resource.

Following are the overall findings of our research into the state of our beaches and coastal waters.

Scarce Information

Indicator information is (still!) difficult to find.

For many states, although there may be adequate information regarding beach access and water quality, there is still little information in the areas of beach erosion, beach fill, shoreline structures and beach ecology. We note that some states now have adequate beach erosion data and a few are starting to develop inventories of shoreline structures. The public needs to understand the extent of the problem, the causes of erosion, and the costs and consequences of erosion response activities. We have seen a growing recognition of the value of information in these areas, and some states are in the process of compiling inventories and costs. In many states there is little recognition of the ecological importance of sandy beaches.

  • Fifteen states have information on beach erosion that is either limited in scope or out-of-date. Sixteen states conduct regular comprehensive monitoring and assessment of shoreline change.
  • Only six states, California, Delaware, Florida, New Jersey, North Carolina and Texas, maintain an accurate and up-to-date statewide inventory of beach fill projects. Alaska, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Puerto Rico and Wisconsin have little to no inventory of beach fill projects. It should be noted that some of these states (Alaska, Minnesota, Puerto Rico, Wisconsin) do very few beach fill projects.
  • Just five states, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and South Carolina, maintain an accurate and up-to-date statewide inventory of the locations and types of shoreline structures. Eight states, Alabama, Alaska, Indiana, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Hampshire and Puerto Rico, have little to no inventory of shoreline structures.
  • Only eight states, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Oregon and Washington, seem to have even fair awareness of and information on beach ecology.

The two areas with the most information are beach access and surf zone water quality. Having adequate, accurate information is a necessary first step towards implementing policy and program changes that will improve the status of these indicators.

  • All states except Louisiana have at least some inventory of public beach access sites. Twenty states now maintain online beach access site inventories that are accurate and up-to-date, and include descriptions of amenities such as parking, restrooms, and access for the handicapped. California, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin have excellent beach access information. Very few states report on gains or losses in beach access.
  • All states now have some kind of ocean water quality standards and a monitoring program. Alaska started a limited scale program in 2007. Statewide programs were set up in 2003 or 2004 in Oregon, Washington and Wisconsin. These states formerly either had no program (Oregon) or only had programs in a few counties (Washington and Wisconsin). Year-round monitoring programs generally occur only in "warm-weather" states such as California, Hawaii, Texas, Florida, South Carolina and North Carolina, although Surfrider Foundation chapters have assisted with an expansion of programs to year-round operation and/or to wider geographic coverage in Northern California, Oregon, Washington, Delaware and New Hampshire. Even in those states, monitoring frequency and/or the number of monitoring locations is often scaled back in the winter months. EPA is now requiring electronic reporting of monitoring and beach closure information, which should facilitate evaluation and comparison of data from different states.

We believe the differences in the quantity and quality of information on beach erosion, beach fill, and shore protection exist because changes in these areas tend to be subtle and occur over a long period of time. In contrast, changes in beach access and water quality are immediately noticed by the public and have more immediate economic impacts.

An associated problem with nearly all beach health indicator information is that the data may be "out there", but it may not have been compiled at the state level. Information on water quality, beach fill, and shoreline structures is often kept at the county or city level and is not available to citizens or even coastal managers without a laborious search. Extracting and compiling this information often requires substantial staff time.

All of the states have a presence on the World Wide Web. Florida, New Jersey, North Carolina, Texas and Washington are examples of states that are taking advantage of advances in information technology to provide easy access to detailed information.

Hidden Information

Very little information is easily accessible and "user friendly."

Substantial technical and scientific data for specific beach sites around the nation is contained in academic journals or studies that line the bookshelves of coastal zone management offices. This information may help professionals make policy decisions. However, it is often not made available to the public or it is not written in a way that is easily understood by the average citizen. The lack of efforts by government and the scientific community to educate the public about coastal environmental issues is at times alarming. It leaves the public without an adequate understanding of how government policies and decisions affect beach health and severely limits their ability to participate in the decision-making process. Surfrider does note that more of this type of information is gradually becoming available online via state CZM websites and that some of the technical information is being distilled into "Citizen Guides" on such topics as beach access, pollution prevention and coastal hazards.

Confusing Information

Indicator information can be confusing.

One study indicates that 60% of the shoreline in California is publicly owned; another that approximately 42% of the shoreline is publicly owned and accessible. One study indicates that in North Carolina there is one public access site for about every 16 miles of shoreline; another that there is a public beach access point for every 1.2 miles of coastline. The percentage of publicly owned coastline in Connecticut has been reported as 36% and 20% in two different studies.

In Washington, one study indicates that 25% of the shoreline is publicly owned; another report states that 39% of Washington's tidelands and 70% of the shorelands remains in public ownership. One study indicates that Washington has one public access site for every 3.5 miles of shoreline; another that there is one public beach access site every 5.3 miles.

The Fall 1997 South Carolina Sea Grant Coastal Heritage Publication Armoring the Coast: Beachfront Battles over Seawalls states that 80% of Georgia’s shoreline is armored. Although there is unquestionably a lot of shoreline armoring in Georgia this number seems high and Surfrider Foundation has been unable to verify it.

Comparing water quality and beach closure information between states and among local jurisdictions is difficult due to inconsistencies in test methods, frequency of testing, closure and advisory standards, notification procedures, and terminology. Although the federal BEACH Act is designed to eliminate some of these inconsistencies, many are likely to remain for some time. Even within a state, two reports may give substantially different information. NRDC's Testing the Waters Report says that beach closures and advisories in California for 2005, 2006 and 2007 were 5199, 4644 and 4736, respectively. Checking the State Water Resources Control Board's Beach Watch website yields completely different numbers - much higher numbers for "postings and closures" and much lower numbers for "beach mile days."

Examples of ambiguous information exist for all of the beach health indicators. It is not necessarily that one study is accurate and another study is wrong. Different studies measure slightly different things, or use the same language to describe different things. This can make the results inconsistent.

Other common problems with information are that it is often dated or the information is difficult to interpret. Water quality indicator information is a good example. Due to limitations of the testing methods, results are typically not available until at least 24 hours after the sampling event.* Then if the agency wishes to collect a second sample to confirm a high result (common in many states), another day is lost before the result is known and a beach is posted. A pervasive problem is the need to simplify complex information for public decision makers, such how to address erosion problems in the most efficient and cost effective manner, addressing immediate problems in ways that don't create more serious problems in the future.

Better Tools

We need better ways to determine the health of our beaches.

The patient seems to be ill, but our blood pressure monitor is broken and most of our other medical instruments are missing (or haven't been invented yet!). The need for a rapid or ideally, a real-time water quality indicator was alluded to above. Insufficient and conflicting information make it difficult to draw meaningful conclusions about the health of our nation's beaches. The only way to know the extent to which our coastal and ocean resources are at risk is to have adequate and accurate information. It's also the only way to make sound decisions and develop appropriate policies.

This is the same message the State of the Beach has been reporting for over 10 years. Other national studies confirm our findings:

  • In an evaluation of state coastal management program effectiveness in protecting natural beaches, dunes, bluffs, and rocky shores, Bernd-Cohen and Gordon (1999) concluded: "there is insufficient nationally compatible outcome data to determine on-the-ground effectiveness."
  • The Heinz Center's 2002 State of the Nation's Ecosystems report stated that, of the 16 indicators used to describe the condition and use of America's coasts and oceans, partial or complete data were available for only nine of the indicators. Of these, only five had a data record long enough to judge trends, and only three had a federally adopted reference point or other type of benchmark for comparison. For seven indicators, no data was reported. In five of these cases, some data existed, but were of uncertain coverage or consistency and had not been aggregated for national reporting. Two indicators required additional refinement or other development before reporting was possible.
  • The Heinz Center's 2003 report The Coastal Zone Management Act: Developing A Framework For Identifying Performance Measures And Indicators recommended that "Congress... should require NOAA to develop a common set of measurable outcome indicators that will help coastal managers evaluate the effectiveness of state coastal management programs in achieving national policy goals established by the Coastal Zone Management Act."

Beach health information is so lacking that, in many cases, the health of our nation's beaches is nearly impossible to determine.

Disturbing Information

The information that is available on beach health gives us cause for concern.

Although beach health indicator information is often lacking, the information that is available points to serious problems that will not be easy to solve. Examples include:

  • Nearly 70% of our nation's coastline is privately owned. More than 90% of the Maine and Virginia shorelines are privately owned. These facts make it very difficult to provide adequate public access to the coast in many areas.
  • According to NRDC's Testing the Waters report, the number of closing and advisory days at ocean, bay and Great Lakes beaches in 2011 topped 20,000 for the seventh consecutive year, confirming that our nation's beaches continue to suffer from serious water pollution that puts swimmers at risk. Aging and poorly designed sewage and stormwater systems hold much of the blame for beachwater pollution. Another important factor exacerbating stormwater pollution id the amount of impervious surfaces in our watersheds. The most important long-term action to address these problems is to adopt 21st-century solutions that address the sources of beachwater pollution, particularly stormwater runoff. The most important of these solutions remains incentivizing and implementing green infrastructure in our cities, such as green roofs, porous pavement, and street plantings, which stop rain where it falls. Green infrastructure effectively reduces the amount of runoff that makes its way into beachwater or triggers harmful sewage overflows, transforming potential beach pollution into a tremendous local water supply resource.
  • The miles of critically eroded beach in Florida increased from 218 miles in 1989 to approximately 365 miles in 2005. More than 47% of New York’s shoreline, and 26% of New Jersey’s and Virginia’s shorelines are identified as critically eroding. Approximately 31% of Maryland’s ocean coastline is currently experiencing some degree of erosion. Nearly 80% of Wisconsin's Great Lakes shorelines suffer from bluff erosion and recession problems. The erosion data that we do have tend to point out the importance of (1) not building too close to the coast, (2) working to re-establish historical sand supply sources, where possible, and (3) avoiding construction of shoreline protective structures in favor of “managed retreat” or environmentally-sensitive beach fill.
  • Federal beach fill funding in Fiscal Year 2002 reached an all-time high of $135 million. Florida topped the list, receiving more than $31 million in federal funding. Federal funding means than many citizens of the U.S. are paying for beaches they will never use. From 2003 on, federal funding for beach fill projects began to be reduced considerably, making our erosion response choices even more difficult. Note: In January 2013 the US Congress approved $50 billion in spending for disaster relief, infrastructure repair and the rebuilding of beaches after Superstorm Sandy, which hit the New York/New Jersey area in October 2012.
  • More than 10% of the California, Florida, Maine, New Jersey and South Carolina shoreline is covered with beach-destroying shoreline armoring. Some coastal counties in southern California are as much as 45% armored. A national study published in 2015 indicated that 2,842 km of continental US shoreline – approximately 14% of the total US coastline – has been armored. Armoring inevitably leads to a loss of beach and tends to promote more armoring. Is that our vision of the future?

These are but a few of the alarming facts we have been able to find. You'll find more in the state reports section, with more detailed information and links to data sources.

Big Picture

Identifying and solving beach health problems requires looking at the big picture.

Natural systems don't recognize state or local boundaries. The 2004 report by the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy and the 2003 report from the Pew Oceans Commission stressed the need for an ecosystem approach to solving problems effecting the coast and the ocean. Erosion of barrier islands is a concern in Massachusetts, Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, and Texas. Inadequate public access to the shore is a problem in many locations. Water quality is an issue for Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and all the states that hug the Great Lakes shores. The same can be said for the states surrounding Chesapeake Bay and Long Island Sound. Exploring issues and treating problems in isolation can lead to incorrect or incomplete solutions, as well as missed opportunities.

It is therefore encouraging to see the formation of regional alliances composed of the governors of coastal states. These alliances include the West Coast Governors Alliance on Ocean Health, the Northeast Regional Ocean Council, the Mid-Atlantic Regional Council on the Ocean, the Governors' South Atlantic Alliance and the Gulf of Mexico Alliance.

Looking up and down the coast, as well as inland, will be necessary to solve our water quality and beach erosion problems. Water quality solutions are facilitated by looking at entire coastal watersheds. Erosion problems are best addressed by considering all historical sources of sand to a littoral cell and barriers to sand transport within the cell.