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Megan Severson,
Wisconsin Environment Research and Policy Center

401 Beach closings at Wisconsin beaches

For Immediate Release

MADISON – This summer, as Wisconsinites head to their favorite beaches across the state, Wisconsin Environment reported there were 401 beach closings and advisories at Lake Michigan and Lake Superior beaches due to pollution in 2009, a drop from the previous year according to the Natural Resource Defense Council’s 20th annual beach water quality report.

Wisconsin Environment called for adoption of new state rules to limit pollution along with increased federal funding and strong EPA rules for reducing stormwater pollution. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources recently approved updates to the state’s rules regarding runoff pollution from agriculture, sewers and roads. The rules are aimed at curbing phosphorus and other nutrients that cause algae blooms and weed growth that consistently choke Wisconsin beaches and fishing spots during summer months.

“When families head to the beach this summer, they shouldn’t have to worry about swimming in polluted water that can make them sick,” said Shannon Nelson, Wisconsin Environment Citizen Outreach Director. “We applaud the Department of Natural Resources for taking significant steps to reduce runoff pollution and protect public health. We encourage the Legislature to make these rules law immediately.”

Using data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the report, Testing the Waters: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches, confirms that our nation’s beachwaters continue to suffer from serious contamination – including human and animal waste – that can make people sick. The report tallied 401 beach closing and health advisory days in 2009 in Wisconsin a six percent decline from the year before.

Across the country, there were more than 18,000 closing and advisory days at ocean, bay and Great Lakes beaches in 2009, confirming that our nation’s beaches continue to suffer from serious water pollution that puts swimmers at risk. Meanwhile, as of July 23 the oil disaster had already led to 1,755 days of beach closing, advisories, and notices in the Gulf region this year.

“The new rules for controlling phosphorus in farm and urban runoff and from sewer pipes are a real accomplishment. Combined with recent bans on phosphorus in dishwasher soap and in lawn fertilizer, Wisconsin is on the verge of real progress on cleaning up our waterways and beaches,” said Lori Grant of the River Alliance of Wisconsin. “It might be years before we see results, but it’s got to start somewhere; if these rules pass the legislature, we have a really good foundation to build on.”

Stormwater is created when heavy rainfall flows over our driveways, sidewalks, rooftops, highways and parking lots – collecting pollutants, including petroleum, heavy metals, animal waste, chemicals and construction debris. When there is a heavy rain, the amount of stormwater can overwhelm the system resulting in a discharge of raw or partially treated sewage.

“Sewage and runoff pollution in our beachwater is preventable,” said Jon Devine, senior NRDC water attorney. “With investment in cost-effective, smarter water practices that are available today, communities can tackle the most common sources of pollution lurking in the waves.”

Nationally, seven percent of beachwater samples violated health standards – indicating the presence of human or animal waste – showing no improvement from 2008 or 2007. In Wisconsin, the percentage of health standard exceedances decreased to seven percent in 2009 from 15 percent in 2008. In Wisconsin, twenty percent of the beach closing and advisory days were caused by stormwater, with the remaining causes unidentified.

Beachwater pollution makes swimmers vulnerable to a range of waterborne illnesses including stomach flu, skin rashes, pinkeye, ear, nose and throat problems, dysentery, hepatitis, respiratory ailments, neurological disorders and other serious health problems. For senior citizens, small children, and people with weak immune systems, the results can be fatal.

“The best way to protect swimmers from beachwater pollution is to prevent it,” said Nelson. “We need to reduce the amount of stormwater created by our cities, increase resources for cities in towns to upgrade their sewage treatment systems, and prevent other sources of pollution from destroying our beaches.”

In addition to the state Department of Natural Resources adopting new water pollution rules, the EPA is in the process of creating new rules for mitigating and preventing stormwater runoff across the country.

“Wisconsin Environment urges the Legislature to adopt the new water pollution rules and the EPA to make strong stormwater rules to reduce stormwater pollution and the make America’s beaches safe for people across the country to enjoy,” Nelson said.

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Wisconsin Environment is a statewide, citizen-based environmental advocacy organization. For the full report, go to www.WisconsinEnvironment.org