Waters need protection and monitoring to protect all of us

This is the time of year when thousands of people flock to beaches all along the Washington coast and Puget Sound to play in the water and escape the summer heat.

The state has more than 1,300 publicly accessible beaches on the Pacific Ocean and Puget Sound where the public could come in contact with the water.

The state departments of Ecology and Health have a beach monitoring program to check recreational marine waters for pollution, but the program only samples about 5 percent of the beaches weekly.

Beach closures and pollution advisories in the state totaled 48 days of closed beaches last year, which means 3 percent of all reported beach monitoring samples in the state last year exceeded the state standard for daily bacterial pollution. The state ranks ninth in the nation on its beach water quality testing, according to the 20th annual beach water quality report prepared by the Natural Resource Defense Council.

More than half of the closures were from diffuse, hard-to-identify sources that don’t come out the end of a pipe. These non-point pollution sources are often carried to surface waters when rainfall flows over driveways, parking lots, rooftops and highways, picking up heavy metals, oils and grease, pesticides and animal waste.

Another 46 percent of the beach warnings in the state were from sewage spills and leaks.

The good news is that the number of beach closures last year is down slightly from 2008, further reducing the risk of water-borne illnesses that place swimmers at risk.

“The frequency of our beach closures is apparently decreasing, but we can’t stop fighting the preventable causes of most closings: bad septic systems, pet waste and bad agricultural practices,” said Bill Anderson, executive director of Tacoma’s nonprofit Citizens for a Healthy Bay.

To better protect our beaches, we also need to prevent, corral and treat stormwater runoff. Studies show that urban stormwater runoff is the single greatest threat to the health of Puget Sound. The volume of petroleum produces entering the sound in dribs and drabs every year is equal to a massive oil spill.

Across the country, there were more than 18,000 closures and advisories at oceans, bays and the Great Lakes beaches in 2009. The number is bound to grow in 2020 because of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. That disaster has already triggered 1,755 days of beach closures, advisories and pollution warnings in the Gulf states.

Here in Washington state, nine beaches exceeded water quality standards for bacterial contamination in 10 percent or more of their samples last year, including Belfair State Park on Hood Canal in Mason County and the Camp Parsons Boy Scout Camp on Hood Canal in Brinnon, Jefferson County.

Only one of the 39 beaches listed in Thurston County was part of the beach monitoring program — Thurston County’s Burfoot Park in Budd Inlet. None of the weekly samples there flunked the water quality test.

But that doesn’t give Thurston County a clean bill of health. Some of the beaches listed – Priest Point Park and the Port of Olympia’s Swantown Marina in lower Budd Inlet – are posted with ongoing health advisories because of their close proximity to sewage outfall pipes, stormwater runoff and historic sources of industrial pollution.

Some South Sound beaches will never be pristine or safe to play in the water, especially in urban areas. But that doesn’t mean the community should write them off. Continued investments in public access at Percival Landing and West Bay Park in lower Budd Inlet make a strong case for continued investment in stormwater and wastewater controls as well.