Feds Soak Water Testing Funds

Obama's new budget would strip funding from federal water monitoring program

Federal funds will no longer be allocated to water-quality testing, which may lead counties to drop these programs entirely.

In a cost-trimming move that has ocean-minded environmental watchdog groups on alert, President Obama’s 2014 federal budget proposal, released on April 10, axes funding for the Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health (BEACH) Act, a program that provides nearly $10 million annually for water-quality monitoring of the nation’s beaches.

Passed by Congress in 2000, the BEACH Act initially set aside $30 million in federal funds to be divvied up by the states to help standardize and strengthen testing programs for bacteria levels at beaches across the country. Congress has never allocated the full amount however, and most years, the federal funds released are closer to $10 million.

The BEACH Act is overseen by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and in addition to federal funds, the act also provides a common water-quality criteria for all states to measure their beaches against. State and local government efforts to keep their beaches clean are evaluated by the EPA, and federal officials are available to assist with recommendations and plans to help ensure safe water conditions.

Florida, California, New York, Texas, and Hawaii collect the bulk of BEACH Act money. California, according to the Santa Monica-based non-profit environmental group Heal the Bay, gets about one-third of its water monitoring budget from the federal government.

But in an effort to slash federal spending, the Obama administration has again proposed eliminating all funding for the BEACH Act in 2014. Last year’s budget also would have gutted the act, but coastal Congressional leaders successfully fought to maintain the funding. The White House argues that after over a decade of federal assistance, state and local governments have had plenty of time to develop their own water-quality standards, monitoring programs, and funding resources.

California Congresswoman Lois Capps disagreed when the same cuts were proposed in 2012. “Frankly I find the [EPA’s] justification absurd,” she remarked. “Without this federal funding, county environmental health officials may have to drop beach water testing and public notification programs.”

According to Heal the Bay’s Matthew King, California’s counties each receive the same amount of federal funding, regardless of size, meaning that smaller or poorer counties may fund their beach monitoring programs entirely with federal dollars. The Surfrider Foundation fears that some states may curtail testing altogether, and that without federal funding, many beaches won’t be monitored in the winter offseason, when tourists have mostly left and surfers are the primary beachgoers.

“We know if it’s offshore and 3-to-5 [feet] that water quality may not be top of mind for many surfers,” noted King. “But they do have the right to know the latest pollution data and what they may be swimming into before deciding to suit up.”