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EPA strengthens water quality guidelines for beaches

States can decide whether to adopt the new standards, issued to protect people swimming, surfing and boating in coastal waters.

November 26, 2012|By Noam N. Levey, Washington Bureau
  • The Environmental Protection Agency updated its standards for water quality at the nation's beaches, issuing two sets of new guidelines.
The Environmental Protection Agency updated its standards for water quality… (Luis Sinco, Los Angeles…)

WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency updated water quality guidelines for the nation's beaches Monday, moving in response to charges that the federal government has not done enough to protect bathers from polluted water.

The new guidelines, which update standards issued in 1986, may not immediately mean safer beaches and coastal waters. States have the authority to set their own water quality standards.

But federal environmental officials said they hoped the suggested guidance would prompt state leaders to toughen their own oversight of recreational waters where people swim, surf and go boating. California is among the states that may tighten standards.

One set of new guidelines parallels recommendations issued 26 years ago for acceptable concentrations of Enterococci and E. coli bacteria, which can cause serious illnesses if ingested.

The EPA also issued a second set of standards with lower recommended thresholds for both bacteria.

The tougher guidelines are expected to keep illnesses down to 32 per 1,000 people, compared with 36 illnesses for the lower standard, the agency said.

The EPA also recommended a more aggressive testing schedule to monitor water quality at beaches.

Ellen Gilinsky, senior policy advisor in the EPA Office of Water, said the agency made the move after reviewing new research on water quality.

"We felt it was appropriate to strengthen our recommendations," she said.

The decision to issue two sets of guidelines drew a mixed response from the Natural Resources Defense Council, which was among a group of organizations that sued in federal court in California to force the EPA to update its water quality standards.

"It's an odd approach," said Steve Fleischli, the council's director of water programs.

Fleischli said the two standards could perpetuate inconsistencies between states that adopt the tougher guidelines and those that opt for the more lenient ones.

Other parties to the lawsuit include the National Assn. of Clean Water Agencies and the Los Angeles County Flood Control District.

noam.levey@latimes.com

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