The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's draft plan drew a flood of negative reaction from state and local officials during a public comment period that ended May 28. The agency will consider the responses and issue a final decision by the end of July, said Betsy Southerland, science and technology director in the EPA's Office of Water.
The EPA in 2012 updated decades-old recreational water quality criteria designed to guide all states in developing standards for protecting bathers from exposure to bacteria linked to fecal contamination. Officials in the Great Lakes region say they were told early this year by EPA's regional office in Chicago they were in compliance.
But in April, the EPA announced additional requirements for coastal states to qualify for federal grants that help cover the costs of testing beach water quality. Among them were new triggers for advising the public about unsafe levels of bacterial pollution.
"We're not chasing people off, not gating the parking lot," Southerland said in an interview Monday. "They can swim if they want. But we're warning them there's a higher risk of illness if they do."
Shannon Briggs, a toxicologist and beach monitoring coordinator with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, said the new conditions probably would cause her state and many others to forfeit this year's grants — partly because they wouldn't have time to get legislative approval as required under state law.
They also would likely cause a significant and unjustified increase in warnings and beach closures, she said.
"We see the new requirements as unattainable and not helping our beaches in a cost-effective manner," Briggs said.
The EPA has awarded about $130 million in grants since 2000, under a program called the Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act, or BEACH Act. About $10 million is allocated in a typical year. President Barack Obama's administration has not included funding for the program in its last three budgets, but Congress has restored it.
Some state, tribal and local governments help pay for beach monitoring, but others rely entirely on the federal grants, which support testing at nearly 1,000 Great Lakes beaches. Only about 100 would be evaluated without the federal support, Briggs said.
Michigan's typical yearly grant has been from $250,000 to $280,000. Florida usually gets about $500,000, while Texas has ranged from $359,000 to $408,220 in the past five years.
Beach cleanliness standards are based on numbers of bacteria detected in water samples that could cause nausea and diarrhea. Technicians measure E. coli levels at freshwater beaches such as those in the Great Lakes. They use a different bacterium, enterococcus, for ocean water measurements.
The dispute involves which levels are unsafe and should lead to public warnings or beach closures. The EPA's 2012 recreational water quality standards set tougher thresholds based on new epidemiological studies, and states have until December 2015 to adopt them.
But in the meantime, the EPA has proposed using different numbers, known as "beach action values," as the basis for this year's grants. Some states already meet those standards, while others don't.
The threshold in North Carolina, for example, is 104 colony forming units (CFUs) of enterococci bacteria per water sample. The beach action value for oceans would be as low as 60 CFUs.
"We think the 104 we're currently using is protective of public health," said J.D. Potts, manager of the state's recreational water quality program. He said it would take two years to make all the changes that the EPA wants.
Sonya Carlson, New Hampshire's beach program coordinator, said her state might opt out of the grant program because of "the unwarranted beach closures it will produce, and the impact that it will have on thousands of beach goers" who support the tourist economy.
Southerland, the EPA official, said using the beach action values this year would help state and local governments transition more smoothly to the new standards. The agency will consider a workable compliance timetable, she said.
The Natural Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group that last week issued its latest annual report on the health of the nation's beaches, bases its ratings on the beach action values.
"People have a right to know when there are high levels of bacteria in the water," said Steve Fleischli, the group's water program director.