As the restless charm of summer recedes and beach season ebbs, it is easy to forget that America’s sandy shorelines endure more than just overcrowding. In July, the National Resource Defense Council released Testing the Waters, its annual report on water quality at U.S. beaches. The report cites that, for the fourth year in a row, raw sewage and other waterborne contamination caused more than 20,000 beach closings. Public health is at stake when illnesses such as the stomach flu, pinkeye, dysentery, hepatitis, respiratory ailments, and other serious health problems are waterborne at beaches.
Storm water and raw sewage runoff are at the heart of the beach pollution problem. During storms, rainwater picks up contaminants (like pesticides, fertilizer, oil and grease, debris and trash, metals and pet waste) that have already reached the pavement, and runs into sewers, rapidly carrying the contaminants out to waterways and making their way into the sea. In addition to what hits the pavement, wastewater infrastructure in many American cities is a culprit of ocean pollution. Close to 2,500 American cities have combined sewers, a system in which raw, untreated sewage can combine with storm water in sewers and overflow out into water bodies. Overflows occur when the rain is heavy enough that the water in these sewers exceeds treatment plant capacity.
Nancy Stoner, the water co-director at Natural Resources Defense Council, talks about the perpetual storm water runoff problem that is contaminating the ocean, not just beaches. “The solution is all about changing the nature of the infrastructure,” she says. “That is — allowing stormwater to soak back into the ground instead of putting it in pipes that dump it without treatment into waterways.” The NRDC proposes development techniques to retain and filter rainwater and allow it to soak back into the ground. Some of those techniques include the use of rain barrels or cisterns, permeable pavement and green roofs.
Storm water runoff’s negative effects are not only a threat to human health, since beaches are part of the larger ecosystem of the ocean. When sewage makes its way to waterways and lands in the ocean, hypoxia, or low-oxygen areas, can occur in coastal waters. The phosphorus in human waste feeds algal blooms that absorb too much oxygen and create an oxygen-starved environment which has a ripple effect on the entire coastal ecosystem. But human sewage is only part of the problem. Stormwater also drags nitrogen-rich animal waste from farms over soil and into coastal waterways. Phosphorus and nitrogen together can create dead zones, or areas close to the sea floor where few organisms can survive due to depleted oxygen levels. The Gulf of Mexico and the Chesapeake Bay are two example of waterways which have suffered from hypoxia and dead zones.
Hamida Kinge has written about everything from food security to ocean acidification to luxury cell phones. She was a 2009 fellow of the Scripps Howard Institute on the Environment and a 2008/09 reporting fellow of the Metcalf Institute for Marine & Environmental Reporting. She has contributed to Next American City, Grist, Philadelphia City Paper and U.R.B. domestically as well as Europe-based magazines Essential Macau and Straight No Chaser. For the past year, she has been teaching English as a foreign language to international students and business professionals. Hamida has also been a volunteer English tutor for the International Center in New York.