Resort’s Beach Earns Top Rating

OCEAN CITY – Clean ocean water and pristine, white sandy beaches have long been the draw for Ocean City and the resort’s efforts to maintain its calling card was rewarded this week with a rare five-star rating in an annual report on water quality at beaches around the country.

According to “Testing the Waters: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches,” an independent report released this week by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), water quality at Ocean City beaches rated a perfect five-star rating. For the 18th year in a row, the NRDC reviewed data supplied by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to rate water quality at beaches around the country based on a variety of standards including acceptable levels of bacteria, frequency of monitoring and the number of closings and advisories over the course of the year.

Under the NRDC’s criteria, at no time in 2007 during any of the hundreds of water quality samples taken at seven different locations along the Ocean City beach did bacteria levels exceed acceptable standards, nor were any closures or advisories issued. The same results were recorded at several monitoring sites on Assateague Island. The only trouble spot for Worcester County in the report was Public Landing, where acceptable levels of bacteria were exceeded 19 percent of the time in over 250 tests.

According to Environment America campaign coordinator Emily Dick, who announced the results of the NRDC report on the beach at 27th Street in Ocean City on Tuesday, achieving five stars represents a feather in the cap for the resort and affirms the proactive approach the town, county and state have taken to water quality at its beaches.

“Ocean City earned five out of five stars in terms of beach water quality, monitoring and health standards,” she said. “Many beaches around the country got two or three stars, but only a few got five. It’s a tribute to the town and Worcester County being so proactive when it comes to water quality at their beaches.”

Other beaches across Maryland along the Chesapeake Bay and rivers and other tributaries did not fare as well although there is reason for optimism in the report. The NRDC report tallied 243 beach closing and health advisory days in 2007, representing a 23 percent decline from the year before. In Maryland, all of the closures and advisory days were due to monitoring that revealed elevated bacteria levels from unknown sources of contamination.

According to the report, Maryland does better than many states in terms of monitoring water quality at its beaches and quickly addressing bacteria levels exceeding maximum standards. Dick said other states are not as progressive as Maryland in terms of water quality at their beaches.

“Some families can’t enjoy a day at the beach because the water is polluted and kids are getting sick,” she said. “We applaud Maryland for taking significant steps to reduce beach water pollution and protect public health.”

Nationally, the news was not as good in the report. In 2007, the number of closings and advisory days at beaches around the country reached 22,571 days, representing the second highest total since NRDC began tracking the events 18 years ago. The record high was recorded the previous year in 2006.

“What this report means for families heading to the beach is they need to be careful and do a little homework,” said Nancy Stoner, director of the NRDC clean water project. “Call your local public health authority and ask them if the beach water is safe for swimming. If there is any doubt, or if the water smells bad or looks dirty, stay out of it.”

Those issues have not been a problem in Ocean City, which was among the few beaches around the country to get a perfect five-star rating in the NRDC report. The coastal beaches in Delaware also received five stars, but beaches in neighboring Virginia and New Jersey did not fare as well and in many cases received one or two stars, or even zero stars.

The success in Maryland is largely attributed to the collaboration between state county agencies on a comprehensive monitoring program, according to Ocean City Surfrider Foundation Chairman Shelly Dawson.

“Worcester County has done a great job of monitoring the beaches in Ocean City,” said Dawson. “It’s shown through in the end result with the ratings in this report.”

Dawson said while the report looks closely at point-source pollution such as sewer outfalls, no less important is non-source pollution.

“Non-point source pollution is another phrase for things we do everyday without really thinking about them,” he said. “This is all about re-educating. Our campaign has been ‘please leave only your footprints’ and if we all do that, we’ll always have a five-star beach.”

Maryland Coastal Bays Program Executive Director Dave Wilson praised Ocean City and Worcester County for being proactive on water quality issues and for going beyond the minimum requirements in terms of acceptable standards.

“I just want to congratulate Ocean City for the good news in this report and the other municipalities in the county that are doing things to contribute to this,” he said.  “It’s not just about adequate public sewer systems, but going beyond what is required with things like buffers and setbacks and spray irrigation. All of those things that are going on inland in the county are contributing to the water quality on the beaches.”