State of the Beach/Methodology/Surf Zone Water Quality

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Because it affects the health of people who use beaches and the organisms living in the ocean, surf zone water quality is a critical measure of the health of our beaches. The report uses the following criteria to evaluate state surf zone water quality:

Water Quality Monitoring Programs

Monitoring programs are an important component of improving water quality by helping to protect public health and increase public awareness about water quality problems. In addition, because any water quality solutions require knowing where water quality problems exist, these programs are a first step towards improving water quality. The report first looks at whether programs exist, and if they do, what level of government conducts the testing. It also examines the frequency of testing and the standards used.

Beach Closures

Where data are available, this report includes a table showing each state's number of beach closures over the past several years. The beach closure data is only a rough measure of each state's water quality, because the number of beach closures depends on several factors besides water quality and data is not necessarily comparable between states or even within states. In addition to water quality, the number of beach closures depends on the stringency of the testing program (or if a program exists), the length of the state's coastline, and other factors such as the amount of annual rainfall. States with a high number of beach closures do not necessarily have poorer water quality than states with a lower number of beach closures. Furthermore, the standards used to close or post advisories at beaches and the pollution-testing methods used vary by state and within states, so no consistent standard exists to compare water quality using the number of beach closures in different areas. One potential method of comparing data between beaches and between states is to look at the percentage of samples from a beach or from a state that exceed water quality standards. For the past several years NRDC has used this metric in their Testing the Waters report. Where these data are available they are discussed. The federal BEACH Act is designed to resolve some of these inconsistencies, but not all states have completely implemented the BEACH Act requirements. In late 2012 the EPA published new Recreational Water Quality Criteria. It will take several years for implementation of these new recommendations to play out. EPA Beach Monitoring & Notification.

While the beach closure data is only an indirect indicator of water quality, patterns in the data can reveal chronic pollution problem areas.

Storm Drain Information

Information about the number, location and status of storm drains is important in improving surf zone water quality because storm drains are the main sources of urban runoff flowing into the ocean. Urban runoff flows into storm drains and either directly into the ocean or into nearby waterways that eventually flow into the ocean. Most importantly, this runoff rarely receives treatment and contains pollutants that have been picked up by the water as it runs through urban areas. Surfrider looked at available information on the location of storm drains at the state level. With this information, water quality agencies can target sources of urban runoff and work to improve surf zone water quality. A considerable amount of storm drain information resides at the local level, so the research for this report may not have found information when it actually does exist. The report indicates when Surfrider found that information is available at the local level.

Sewage Outfall Information

Due to strict permitting for point sources of pollution, the relative proportion of pollutants from sewage outfalls that affect surf zone water quality has decreased over the past three decades. Nevertheless, the location of outfalls, discharge volumes, treatment level, and the pollutants emanating from them is important information for individual beaches that the public should know. This report looks at the public availability of this information.

Perception of Causes

Where available, this provides information about what are believed to be the major causes of water quality problems, such as sewage discharges or storm water or runoff.

Public Education Program

We have included a summary of state efforts to provide information about surf zone water quality. This may include Web-based reporting of testing results, model ordinances, volunteer monitoring programs, workshops, brochures, and posters.

Threshold criteria for the surf zone water quality indicator are:


7 to 10 -­ Uniform statewide ocean water quality standards, a comprehensive statewide monitoring program, and prompt posting and reporting of closure/advisory data
4 to 6 -­ Ocean water quality standards, a monitoring program, and posting and reporting of closure/advisory data, but limited in the geographic extent or frequency of testing
1 to 3 ­- No statewide ocean water quality standards and no (or an extremely limited) monitoring program


7 to 10 -­ A low number, low frequency, or a significant decrease in the number of beach closures/advisories
4 to 6 ­- Little to no change in the number of beach closures/advisories
1 to 3 -­ A high number, high frequency, or a significant increase in the number of beach closures/advisories

Other factors such as storm drain and sewage outfall information, and public education programs were also taken into account in determining the rankings.