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Federal funds for health testing at beaches to be eliminated

February 15, 2012 |  2:07 pm

Beach water testing santa monica
Health testing at beaches in California and across the nation is at risk of being cut back under a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency plan to eliminate federal funds for monitoring whether the water is too contaminated to swim in.

Citing the “difficult financial climate,” the agency said in its budget request this week that it would do away with $10 million in grants it gives each year to state and local agencies in coastal and Great Lakes states to test for tainted water.

"While beach monitoring continues to be important to protect human health and especially sensitive individuals," the EPA said in a emailed statement, "states and local governments now have the technical expertise and procedures to continue beach monitoring without federal support."

The proposed cuts come as the agency is drafting new nationwide beach water quality standards, which have been panned by environmental groups as weaker at protecting swimmers and surfers from illness than the 1986 rules they replace.

“It feels like a double whammy to beachgoers,” said Kirsten James, water quality director for Santa Monica environmental group Heal the Bay. “The EPA is on multiple levels telling them they are swimming at their own risk every time they go to the beach."

The EPA has paid for $111 million worth of beach water quality testing over the last dozen years through the grant program authorized by Congress in the 2000 BEACH Act. “As a result, the number of monitored beaches has more than tripled to more than 3,600 in 2010,” the agency announced last month

The grants slated for elimination pay for local health and environmental protection agencies to conduct water quality tests and post warning signs or even close the beach when bacteria levels indicate the water is too contaminated. Swimming in polluted water exposes people to pathogens that can can cause gastrointestinal illness, diarrhea, vomiting, skin rashes and ear, eye and staph infections.

California is eligible for about $500,000 each year, second only to Florida, and uses the EPA funds to supplement beach water monitoring up and down the coast.

“The cut could reduce the amount of testing unless other funding sources are found when the funds take effect,” Judie Panneton, a spokeswoman for the State Water Board, wrote in an email.

State and county budget cuts have in recent years led California beaches to scale back monitoring, putting swimmers, surfers and divers at greater risk of getting sick. A law signed last year by Gov. Jerry Brown restored funding at the state level, giving the State Water Board authority to provide up to $1.8 million a year to pay for more consistent testing at hundreds of beaches.

Environmental groups said they would press the EPA to restore money for beach monitoring and strengthen water quality standards as they try to determine which states might see their testing programs curtailed without federal funds.

"The potential is that states will decrease the number of beaches they monitor, the frequency or cut back on resources they use to notify the public about conditions at the beach," said Jon Devine, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council's water program. "We’d likely see a reduction in information about an important public health concern."


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Photo: Irina Levi walks under the Santa Monica Pier in 2010. Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times