The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) recently released their 2012 “Testing the Waters” report on the water quality of the nation's beaches. The findings weren't great.
Nationwide, 7 percent of beach water samples were contaminated with unsafe levels of pathogens, according to the NRDC. This is actually a bit less than the 8 percent of samples that were dirty in 2011. But the NRDC points out that that's only because there was less rainfall in 2012, and therefore less polluted storm runoff.
It gets worse. These statistics are based on beaches not passing cleanliness grades laid down by the EPA. The NRDC though has long criticized the EPA's standards for not being nearly stringent enough. The report explains: “Last November, the Environmental Protection Agency issued new beach water standards that leave the public inadequately protected from unsafe levels of disease-causing bacteria and viruses." So not only is water quality not getting much better, the EPA isn't as strict as it should be.
But the EPA is certainly good at tracking the unpleasant effects of polluted water. They note that almost 3.5 million beachgoers nationwide get sick each year from raw sewage seeping into seawater. In L.A. and Orange counties alone, fecal contamination is the culprit for between 600,000 and 1.5 million annual cases of stomach illness. Ohio, Wisconsin, Minnesota (the Great Lakes have beaches too), Maine, and South Carolina were the worst offenders in the study.
California was ranked 20th out of 30 states in the study, with Avalon Beach on Catalina, and Doheny State Beach being the most consistently polluted; at least 25 percent of the time, over the past four years, the water at those beaches tested way above acceptable standards. On the other end of the spectrum, three California beaches received "5-Star" status for having exceptionally clean water: Bolsa Chica, Newport Beach, and San Clemente State Beach. So there's hope.
The NRDC's report stresses that the best way to combat filthy beach water is for municipalities to construct some kind of runoff absorbing system to keep polluted groundwater and sewage from getting into the ocean.
Until then, you can monitor local beaches and read the full report here: nrdc.org/water/oceans/ttw/