Federal cuts may hurt beach monitoring programs

Federal cuts may hurt beach monitoring programs
As part of the Obama Administration’s proposed 2013 budget, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency plans to eliminate about $10 million in annual grants it gives to coastal states’ beach water monitoring programs. File photo

COAST CITIES — Next year, beach goers may have a more difficult time gauging whether local waters are too polluted to swim in. 

As part of the Obama Administration’s proposed 2013 budget, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency plans to eliminate about $10 million in annual grants it gives to coastal states’ beach water monitoring programs.

San Diego stands to lose $25,000 of EPA grant money for its beach water monitoring program, according to Mark McPherson, chief of the Department of Environmental Health’s Land and Water Quality Division.

“It’s not a lot of our overall budget, but it could impact testing during the winter months,” McPherson said.

If additional funds aren’t found to offset federal cuts, the county’s beach water monitoring program could be scaled back or eliminated from November through March beginning next year, according to McPherson.

During the fall and winter, the county collects and analyzes 20 samples each week along San Diego’s coastline. 40 additional samples are gathered by cities, wastewater agencies and nonprofits like San Diego Coastkeeper for the county to analyze.

Water samples detect disease-causing pathogens or microbes at sites like Torrey Pines State Beach, 15th Street Del Mar, the San Elijo Lagoon and the Imperial Beach pier. The tests take 24 hours to analyze, and are then put online for residents to check before entering the water. In the event of high levels of pathogens or microbes at sites, the county posts advisory or closure signs at necessary beaches.

Advisories and closures are more common during fall and winter primarily due to increased urban runoff and untreated sewage from rainfall, according to McPherson.

The county’s beach water monitoring program will cost between $385,000 and $435,000 this year. Most of the funding for the program comes from the state for beach water monitoring during spring and summer.

Although more people frequent San Diego beaches during the spring and summer, Travis Pritchard, San Diego Coastkeeper’s Water Quality Lab manager, said fall and winter beach water monitoring is critical.

“Less people are at the beaches, but many swimmers and surfers are in the water in those months,” Pritchard said. “Many have gotten very sick because the water quality can be especially poor then. Pollutants in direct contact with humans in the water cause sicknesses — that’s proven, not theoretical.”

More than reversing proposed cuts, Pritchard believes the entire program could use more funding.

“Current beach testing is completely inadequate,” he said. “There’s just not enough resources to produce up-to-date data for San Diego.”

Since the BEACH Act was signed into law in 2000, the EPA has given more than $111 million in yearly grants to coastal states for beach water monitoring programs. California receives $500,000 in EPA funds.

Citing a harsh economy, the EPA’s budget proposal states: “While beach monitoring continues to be important, well-understood guidelines are in place, and state and local government programs have the technical expertise and procedures to continue beach monitoring without federal support.”

But Chad Nelsen, Surfrider’s environmental director, doesn’t think many beach water-monitoring programs will be maintained, especially in other coastal states.

“California will be hurt by this, other states could really be hurt,” Nelsen said.

“Some states rely on federal funds for up to 80 percent of their water testing,” he added.

Should EPA funds evaporate, Supervisor Grex Cox said he’s open to finding additional county funding to support the beach water-monitoring program during the fall and winter.

“We need a sustainable year-round source,” Cox said. “This economic issue is critical to local tourism.”

Before looming federal cuts, the county’s beach water monitoring program was at the mercy of state budget cuts. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger took an axe to the program in 2008 because of the state budget crisis. Temporary funding was acquired from various sources for several years. Last October, Gov. Jerry Brown restored funding by giving the California Water Resources Control Board authority to provide up to $1.8 million for beach testing statewide.

State funding for beach monitoring programs should be more secure in the future, according Michael Gjerde, the beach coordinator of the California Water Resources Control Board.

“Funding for state beach monitoring is no longer part of the general fund,” Gjerde said. “It’s collected as a fee by the state water board. I think is a more long-term solution because politics don’t play as big a role.”

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