USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts & Sciences > Blog

April 22, 2012

Federal beach water testing fund cuts: The end of good beach days?

The Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act of 2000 (BEACH Act) is a Federal Act by the Environmental Protection Agency, which aims to increase the quality of recreational waters by testing for pathogens. This Act has been very helpful to improve the quality of waters in many states especially in states such as Oregon and Washington, which did not have any legislation of this manner. The BEACH Act amended the Clean Water Act and called for testing of coastal waters by appropriate indicators and in a manner that is “appropriate, accurate, expeditious, and cost-effective.” While the implementation of this act has improved coastal water quality, there are still improvements to be made, and with recent budget problems, the funding to beach testing could possibly be cut.

Due to the uncertainty of our economy, the EPA has said that they will cut the $10 million they give to states for testing recreational waters. They are cutting these funds and allowing local governments to take over testing because they now have the technology and expertise. However, these funds are vital for local monitoring because they allocate important funds to the state for local testing, and without these funds, “states will decrease the number of beaches they monitor, the frequency or cut back on resources they use to notify the public about conditions at the beach.” California’s budget problems have led to a scaling back of beach testing, but a law signed by Gov. Jerry Brown provided $1.8 million for testing. So, unless California and other beach states can find their own funding for recreational water testing, the future of beachgoers health may be in jeopardy.

However, the federal government insists that local governments are capable of handling beach testing. Because the EPA has been providing guidance and support for fifteen years, they argue that by know local governments should have developed efficient programs for beach testing. Indeed, any local governments assert that they have become self-sufficient in their beach water quality management. As Santa Cruz director John Ricker stated, “We’ve been doing beach water quality testing since the 70s, long before it was mandated or funded by the state. We kind of just go ahead and do our program, and were happy to get revenue wherever we can.” This independence reveals how local governments are capable of maintaining beach testing if they take initiative without such extreme handholding from the EPA.

Furthermore, the amount of funding received from the federal government varies state by state to begin with. For example, although California has an immense amount of coastlines and beaches, it receives a smaller portion when the EPA decides to divert funding other states that need encouragement to begin beach testing to begin with. States and local governments should be able to conduct testing independent of federal support since it can be inconsistent and is not always guaranteed, as shown through the recent cuts. Counties such as Santa Cruz actually cover half of the cost of beach testing in that area, with the federal government contributing only one fourth. Beyond funding, because of the local variability of fecal indicator bacteria concentrations based on region, it may be beneficial to deal with beach testing on a smaller, local scale. One U,S, Geological Survey showed that the current water quality testing in the Great Lakes was too broad and resulted in many unnecessary beach closures, decreasing revenue made from those beaches. Local approaches to beach cleanups can yield more accurate results of bacteria concentration so that beaches are only closed when truly dangerous to human health.

Although federal support of beach testing has been very crucial in many states, the recent EPA cuts do not mean that beach water testing must cease or decrease in quality. As long as states take responsibility of beach testing, the process can develop strongly and efficiently. Without federal enforcement and encouragement, it will be up to the public to fight for beach testing to maintain human health. If people make beach water quality a priority, they can influence and pressure local officials to make it one as well.


Juliana Duran and Judy Fong are undergraduates in the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences.

Beach Testing: The Dangers of State Control

In 2000, Congress passed the BEACH Act, requiring the regular testing and monitoring of recreational water quality in order to reduce the likelihood of gastrointestinal and other diseases in swimmers.  After the BEACH Act was signed into federal law, it became the federal government’s and its respective administrative agencies’ (like the EPA) responsibility to distribute funds amongst state and local governments to encourage regular monitoring. The act set a strict and consistent uniformity in national water quality monitoring that was nonexistent before its implementation in 2000—prior to that, some states including Washington and Wisconsin did not even have monitoring programs.  However, difficult economic times in the U.S. has brought increasing pressure to tighten budgets, and beach monitoring is by no means exempt: the Environmental Protection Agency released its budget, which included a $10 million cut in grants that support frequent and widespread testing for fecal indicator bacteria at beaches, a cut sizeable enough to drastically reduce testing and force monitoring responsibilities almost solely on state and local governments.  Though budgets are tight, continued federal oversight and funding for beach monitoring will be the most effective way to ensure that surfers and swimmers are safe.

For the last 12 years, the federal government has funded state and local governments to carry out various methods of water quality monitoring, the most common being measurement of fecal indicator bacteria (FIB) levels.  As of 2012, the number of beaches regularly being monitored for water-borne disease had climbed to 36,000; however, if federal grants are completely taken away, state and local governments might not have sufficient funds to maintain such a rigorous monitoring process.  Currently, some states receive up to 80% of their money for beach monitoring from the federal government, and in coastal areas which depend on tourism to supplement this money the concern is that there will not be a reliable year-round source of support to continue testing.

The beach monitoring system currently in place is not without flaws.  Many researchers argue that current testing is severely inadequate, and that in addition to reversing cuts, more money should be directed to research and data collection.  Recent tests at beaches across the country have indicated that as much as 21% of tested water samples exceeded the maximum loads of FIB set forth by the EPA.  The methods of data collection also need improvement: federal funds would help research about faster, more specific and more effective ways of determining water quality.  An end to funding will cause research to go significantly slower or, completely stop.

On an environmental level, control of and standards for water testing set forth by several different entities rather than one organization will be very ineffective in keeping an even standard of water quality.  Neighboring counties may wet different FIB load limits, or due to tight budgets some cities may choose to only choose to monitor high-traffic beaches, leaving wetland areas without testing. Ocean currents could transport FIB from areas of lower regulation or monitoring.  Low-traffic but ecologically fragile ecosystems may not receive the monitoring they need and become severely contaminated without regulatory action.

With almost every aspect of government facing a tight budget squeeze, there is no easy solution to beach testing and funding; however, when the costs and benefits are weighed, federal funding will be vital to ensuring that every swimmer, surfer, and sun-bather in the United States can know that they are safe from water-born illnesses.


Britanny Cheng and Kali Staniec are undergraduates in the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

October 30, 2011

Federal Oversight Not Needed by the Coastal States

A big concern regarding the coastal states of western and eastern United States has been should federal oversight of beach safety be ramped up? Our belief is no. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the United States already granted $10 million directly to states to improve monitoring technology as well as facilitate beach clean-ups where necessary. We believe the states that border the coastal oceans and the Great Lakes are responsible for keeping those areas clean and safe for recreational use by the public. Using data and modern technology to assess whether the Beach is safe is crucial to determining whether or not the beach should be shut down or not. However, this does come with a heavy financial burden. That is why measures such as the BEACH Act of 2000 and the November 8th FInal Rule, which were put into place to safeguard against FIBs (Fecal Indicator Bacteria) and other bacteria in the water, are so important.

With strict federal measures already in place, the state has the guidelines that it must follow in order to uphold quality beaches and lakes. Because the 1986 Criteria for measuring bacteria had been updated by the EPA, state legislature should follow the amendments explicitly, in order to maintain a safety standard for the public by notifying them of possible health concerns. By informing the public when the ocean water is not safe, the state avoids legal complications from sick people and also better informs the public of the risks associated with going into the ocean on a particular day. Since the new measure have been enacted, the number of beach closures has slowly decreased in correlation with the number of beaches being monitored.

This means that the measures of AB 411 and the BEACH Act of 2000 have been effectively improving the monitoring and clean up of the coastal waters and lakes. With this data, we do not support further federal oversight of the states to maintain cleaner beaches. Although it would be excellent to have cleaner and stricter policy, we believe that it is the state’s job to maintain its own beaches and property for the health and safety of its citizens. Along with the financial support the government provides to improve monitoring and to clean up of the beaches, they also give grants for beach-research and health studies to determine the impacts of harmful bacteria and microorganisms on human health. This research and data will further help the states determine which beaches to shut down or not. This will potentially help save the state millions of dollars per year because it will lead to less beach closures and more money spent by tourists.

Overall, we find that the states and local governments are doing the best they can to provide the public quality access to the recreational waters they use. For, it is in the state’s best interest to keep up and maintain a resource that it makes millions of dollars off of from tourism. With the already strict policies, regulations, and sufficient funding, the states are in an excellent position to take care of and maintain safe and clean beaches for the public to enjoy.

About the authors: Sherwood Egbert and Matt Goldberg are working towards their bachelor degrees in the USC Dornsife Environmental Studies Program.

Federal and State Oversight Proves Insufficient in Water Testing

Federal and State regulations in regard to beach testing often have many limitations in relation to the uniform nature of the legislation and sets of procedures that states must follow. However, aquatic ecosystems are very diverse and require specialized attention in order to properly test for water quality criteria. The BEACH Act, which is legislation that sets a standardized method for testing for fecal indicator bacteria (FIB) on a daily, monthly and yearly basis, was developed by the EPA and enacted in 2000. Although this can effectively increase the health of the population through reporting methods, this mode of Federal and State regulation has a number of limitations.


The BEACH Act tests three different FIB, which include Enterococci, Fecal Coliforms and Total Coliforms. However, these FIB often times do not have a direct relationship to sickness and are oftentimes naturalized in the environment through nonhuman waste sources such as animals. Methods for testing are also outdated and as such, notification of beach contamination is often coupled with a lag time. The standard for EPA FIB testing under The BEACH Act is culture-based methods, which take up to 24-48 hours to process. Moreover, new rapid testing methods contain a high error rate, which pose a barrier to limiting recreational waterborne illness. This can leave the public unaware of current beach conditions, which can pose serious health risks (Gross 2004).  While testing and beach monitoring has advanced in recent years, as noted by a steady increase in beach closures, not much has been done to curve point and non point sources of pollution, which is the main issue at hand. Until point and non point sources of pollution are addressed, marine ecosystems will see a steady rise in closures and no manifested gain from advances in testing methods (Bohem 2009).

Local oversight of beach testing, however, may pose as the solution to the BEACH Act’s deficiencies. According to a recent study, single FIB measurements (as imposed by Federal and State agencies) are not accurate representations of an ecosystem’s true FIB concentrations. Spatial and temporal differences in testing can lead to great variability amongst FIB readings (Boehm, Fuhrman, MRSE, and Grant 1-2). Additionally, supplementary factors including, “…the highly dynamic currents that transport them, and the complex biological and physicochemical processes that influence the rate at which they are removed from the water column” also greatly influence FIB concentrations (Boehm, Fuhrman, MRSE, and Grant 1-2). Due to this high range of FIB variability concentrations within a single environment, extensive monitoring is required  – including multiple daily water tests involving temporal and spatial variation – in order to accurately assess FIB concentrations.

Evidently, such monitoring would need to be conducted by local authorities that have a better understanding of the environment’s unique biological and physicochemical properties. In addition to obtaining more accurate FIB readings, local agencies would also be able to better assess the source of FIB than federal or state authorities as FIB can originate from several local sources – from septic tanks and urban runoff to fecal disposal from boats and natural animal sources. As local authorities pinpoint the FIB source, solutions for cleanup would be more deemed possible and effective. “The best way to protect swimmers from beach water pollution is to prevent it” according to Megan Severson from Wisconsin Environment, “A key solution is investing in smarter, greener infrastructure on land – like porous pavement, green roofs, parks, roadside plantings and rain barrels” preventing overloading sewage systems and polluted storm-drain water from hitting the beach. Clearly, Federal and State agencies who solely visit the site when required for testing, would not be as qualified to take into account all the unique factors of the ecosystem in their FIB readings, let alone provide a successful solution.


Boehm, Alexandria, et al. “A sea change ahead for recreational water quality criteria”. Journal of Water and Health. 07.1 (2009): 9-20.

Boehm, Alexandra B., Jed A. Fuhrman, Robert D. MRSE, and Stanely B. Grant. “Tiered Approach for Identification of a Human Fecal Pollution Source at a Recreational Beach: Case Study at Avalon Bay, Catalina Island, California.” USC Dornsife College: Environment, Science, and Technology. n.d. 1-2. Web. 18 Oct 2011. <>

Gross, Jason. “No Day at the Beach”. Scientific American. 19 July 2004. 1-2. Web.

Mednick, Adam. “Preciting Beach Water Quality.” Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, 22 Apr 2010. Web 17 Oct 2011. <>.

Severson Megan. “Clean Water News.” Wisonsin Environment. Wisconsin Environment, 29 Jun 2011. Web. 17 Oct 2011. <>.

Stephen Holle/Birka Burnison