Maryland's ocean and Chesapeake Bay beaches ranked 16th cleanest for swimming and wading in the latest nationwide survey by the Natural Resources Defense Council. Delaware's Rehoboth and Dewey beaches, though, earned "superstar" ratings for the quality of their water and their monitoring.
Overall, seven percent of the water samples taken last year at the state's 70 coastal beaches exceeded health standards for bacteria that could make bathers sick, the national environmental group reported in "Testing the Waters," its 21st annual report on beach water quality.
Tolchester Beach Estates in Kent County was the worst, with 43 percent of samples registering unsafe bacteria levels, followed by Elk Neck State Park in Cecil County (26 percent) and the YMCA's Camp Tockwogh, a youth camp in Kent County.
The NRDC rated Ocean City's beach in the top tier of water quality, with just 3 percent of the weekly water samples there showing high bacteria counts. But NRDC noted that its "superstar" beaches like Rehoboth and Dewey had tallied zero bacteria exceedences in the past three years.
In the Baltimore area, unsafe bacteria levels were detected in 7 percent of the samples taken at Anne Arundel County beaches, and in just 2 percent of tests done at Baltimore County's beaches - though one beach there, in the Hammerman area of Gunpowder State Park, had swimming advisories in effect for 24 days.
The 7 percent of high bacteria measurements at Maryland's beaches last year represented an increase over 2009, the NRDC reports, when just 3 percent of samples exceeded daily maximum bacteria standards.
Maryland's beaches generally rated a little cleaner than the national average, according to the NRDC report, which found that 8 percent of samples exceeded health standards.
But beach closings and swim warnings nationwide shot up last year, the NRDC said, to its second highest level in the 21 years the group has been collecting beach water quality data. It said there were a variety of reasons for the increase, including heavy rains in Hawaii, the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and unknown sources of contamination along the California coast.
While the offshore drilling rig blowout forced beach closures in the Gulf, the main sources of contamination nationwide are storm-water runoff and weather-related sewage overflows, the NRDC says. It urged the federal government and states to do more to curb runoff, including requiring the use of porous pavement and installation of rain gardens and green roofs to soak up rainfall, rather than letting it wash pollutants into nearby streams.
"We still have a lot to do to clean up America’s beaches," said David Beckman, the NRDC's director of water programs. "A day at the beach doesn’t have to mean getting skin rash or dysentery as a souvenir of your vacation."
To see the entire report and a state-by-state breakdown, go here.
(Ocean City, Baltimore Sun photo by Gene Sweeney Jr.)