The water is waiting: Beaches open amid continuing questions about funding for water quality
By David Steinkraus
The Journal Times (WI)
Published June 1, 2007
RACINE — Racine’s beaches officially open today for the summer, and if the weather forecast isn’t that good, it’s no more than a reflection of problems hovering over the nation’s beaches.
Problems aren’t reflected in Racine, however. North Beach has again been designated as a Blue Wave Beach this year, meaning it meets a set of criteria for cleanliness and availability, said Julie Kinzelman, microbiologist for the city Health Department. And for the first time, she said, Zoo Beach will have lifeguards on the weekends.
Water testing is already under way. “We started on the 25th, and it’s all good so far,” she said.
Last summer, North Beach was open for swimming 97 percent of the time, the second consecutive year in which the beach was available at least 95 percent of the time, she said.
For years, the beaches had a history of closing often during the summer because of high bacteria counts along the shore.
This year, the city health laboratory will be continuing its exploration of whether cladophora — the algae which forms mats that wash up along the shore — may serve as a reservoir of bacterial contamination. This is being done in conjunction with the Sea Grant Institute in Milwaukee and the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. The lab will also be continuing trials of PCR, a technique which amplifies DNA, for possible use as a faster test of water quality than the methods used now, Kinzelman said.
All the work will be handled by Kinzelman and six research assistants — college students who will be paid from grant money awarded to the city for the various projects.
Actual monitoring of water quality along the city beaches is paid for by federal money from the BEACH (Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health) Act. “We actually got a little bit more this year,” Kinzelman said. The city’s allocation (money is passed from the federal government through state government) increased from $5,875 to $6,600.
The total sum available to make the nation’s beach water safer has been at issue for some months. In February, when the Bush administration released its budget requests for fiscal year 2008, Great Lakes groups criticized the paucity of money for lake projects generally, including water quality monitoring. The administration requested an increase of only one-half percent over 2006 for the BEACH Act.
In its report on the 2006 season, the Wisconsin Department of natural Resources noted that funding remains a problem for monitoring the state’s beaches. For the second year in a row, the report says, counties were asked to reduce sampling at high priority beaches from five times per week to four, and the amount of money needed to fully implement the BEACH Act monitoring fell about $76,000 short.
Federal funding for the act was criticized again last week in a report from the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress. The beach program has been funded at about $10 million annually, approximately one-third of what is needed, the GAO report says.
Because of that, and the way the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency awards money, states receive about the same amount of funds without regard to the territory they must monitor, and because of the way rules are written, beach money can’t be used to help remedy contamination.
Numbers contained in the EPA’s recently released report on beach water quality show that the percent of beaches with advisories or closures has increased steadily (to 32 percent of beaches in 2006) since reporting was required in 2003. But information from the first two years, 2003 and 2004, was incomplete.
In Wisconsin, the percent of water samples exceeding safety limits has been very slightly increasing since 2003.
Racine comes in for a mention in the GAO report, too. It’s noted as an example of a place where local officials supported an investigation of the sources of contamination and then worked to reduce the contamination. In most cases, the report notes, sources of beach contamination remain unknown and unaddressed.