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Great Lakes Article:

Beach Water Testing May Be Flawed

IRVINE, California, August 16, 2002 (ENS) - The recent rise in beach closures across the country could be due in part to flawed sampling techniques, suggests a California study.

A July report by an environmental group, the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), found that there were 19 percent more beach closures and advisories in 2001 than in the previous year, which the group attributed to increased monitoring and better testing standards for bacteria and other pathogens.

However, most of the closings were triggered by a single sample, said Dr. Stanley Grant, professor of environmental engineering at the University of California at Irvine, and an author of a report released this week. Because water quality changes so fast, an effective single sample program would require minute by minute updates, Grant argued.

"You'd have to have a stop light up on the beach flashing green and red," Grant said. "It flashes red and everybody would have to run out of the surf; it flashes green and everybody could run back in."

The high number of closings based on the single sample method has prompted public concern about water quality at America's beaches. Using a 43 year history of data and several sampling surveys, Grant and his coauthors studied the surf water quality at Huntington Beach, California.

Huntington Beach made national headlines in the summer of 1999 when a large section was closed to the public, drawing attention to beach water quality around the country. But since then, the researchers found, water quality has been improving in response to large scale investment in waste treatment and disposal in the region.

"I think there's actually a positive environmental message here," Grant said. "There's been a lot of money spent over the years on mitigation and we can clearly see the impacts of that."

The researchers found that coastal water quality is controlled by an intricate relationship among a number of physical and biological factors, such as tidal cycles, seasonal rainfall and El Niño events. This complexity makes beach water monitoring difficult, and raises questions about existing monitoring programs across the country.

In October 2000, Congress passed the federal BEACH act, which is designed to ensure consistent national health standards for beach water by 2004. States will have to meet U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards to receive federal funding for the monitoring programs.

The EPA has not issued final rules for implementing the BEACH act, and Grant is concerned that the bill could turn the single sample standard into law. Grant favors the use of an averaging method, similar to that used to determine unsafe air quality in urban areas.

Current EPA guidelines do include an averaging method, but local authorities are far from consistent in their sampling strategies, according to the NRDC report.

Grant's study appears in the August 14 Web edition of "Environmental Science and Technology," a journal of the American Chemical Society.

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