WASHINGTON — Beach closings and warnings due to harmful bacteria dropped last year, an environmental watchdog group reported Tuesday, but 2007 was the second-worst year in 18 years and heavy rains this year may reverse the decline.
In its report, the Natural Resources Defense Council credited improved test results and a drier year with much of the 2007 drop.
Declines were nearly nationwide, with the exception of Gulf Coast, New York-New Jersey and Great Lakes beaches.
The greatest increases in beach closings and swimming advisories — 38 percent — were along the Gulf Coast, the council found. That was largely due to the reopening of many Louisiana and Mississippi beaches that had been restricted since the hurricanes of 2005, according to the report.
High levels of bacteria, which indicate the presence of human or animal waste, accounted for 71 percent of the closings and advisory days last year, the group said. Runoff and storm water were the major sources of pollution.
About 7 percent of all beach water samples failed to meet national health standards in 2007 and 2006. In 2005, the rate was 8 percent.
Nancy Stoner, the director of the group's clean-water project, said the number of beach closings last year was "just not acceptable. Americans should not have to choose between swimming and sewage when baking on the beach."
In 2007, beaches closed or posted no-swimming advisories for a total of 22,571 days, a 12 percent drop from the 2006 record high of 25,643 days
Stoner cautioned beach-goers to go elsewhere after heavy rain.
"The most dangerous time to swim at the beach is right after a heavy rainfall," she said.
A total of 18 beaches, in California, Hawaii, Maryland, Minnesota and New Hampshire, received five-star top ratings.
Edisto Island in Colleton County, S.C., earned two stars.
Of the 18 beaches that scored the worst, 17 were in New Jersey and one was in Connecticut.
Based on statewide results, Alaska's beaches had the cleanest water and Illinois' the most polluted.
ON THE WEB
See how your favorite beach scored: http://oceans.nrdc.org/beachgoers/map
More on the 2007 results: http://www.nrdc.org/water/oceans/ttw/titinx.asp