Maine has sunk to 27th on the list of 30 coastal states that are rated by the Natural Resources Defense Council for the water quality of their beaches.
This year’s beach-water safety report by the environmental advocacy group was released Thursday, within days of the July 4 summer tourism rush.
It puts Maine near the bottom of the 30 coastal states — including those bordering the Great Lakes — said Emily Figdor, director of Environment Maine, a nonprofit group that publicized the test results Thursday at Portland’s East End Beach.
Maine was 20th in the 2012 report, based on monitoring over the previous summer for factors such as bacterial levels, water clarity and pH levels.
The beaches with the most water samples exceeding the state’s daily maximum bacterial standard were Goodies and Laite beaches in Knox County, Short Sands Beach in York, Ferry Beach in Scarborough and Crescent Beach in Kittery.
Among the counties, Knox had the highest rate of water samples exceeding the health standard, at 30 percent, followed by Waldo at 17 percent, Lincoln at 13 percent, Hancock at 12 percent, York at 10 percent, Cumberland at 9 percent and Sagadahoc at 3 percent.
The 23rd annual Testing the Waters report says 11 percent of water samples from 71 Maine beaches last summer failed health standards by exceeding the state’s maximum bacterial standard of 104 colonies per 100 milliliters. “Maine ranked among the worst,” Figdor said.
“Our beaches are clean,” countered Jessamine Logan, director of communications for the state Department of Environmental Protection.
The state checks and monitors any beach considered to be of concern on a weekly basis, she said. “Maine is proud that more than 95 percent of our beaches are clean.”
The DEP issued a news release Tuesday saying that, during the 2012 beach season, “95.1 percent of total beach days were free of beach advisories or closures.”
“Mainers and visitors heading to the state’s coastal beaches to beat the summer heat will find them clean, open, and safe for swimming,” the release said.
The state and the Natural Resources Defense Council worked from the same set of statistics, Logan said, and a low ranking does not indicate the beach water was a problem.
The Natural Resources Defense Council and the DEP agreed that the water quality in 2012 was attributable in part to heavy rainfall, including an early-summer deluge that caused millions of dollars in damage in central Maine. Rainstorms send runoff of sewage, pesticides, fertilizers, oil from streets and other pollutants into coastal waters.
Even taking that into account, Figdor said, this year’s report shows no improvement in beach water quality over 2011.
But Logan said the state took measures last year to prevent pollution at its beaches, particularly when heavy rain was forecast, and she said it is safe to go to the beach and let children swim.
If people have questions about the cleanliness of the beach water in which they want to swim, she said, they can call their town office or the DEP. “We will help them find the answers they need,” she said.
Figdor, who said she brings her family to Willard Beach in South Portland or Crescent Beach in Cape Elizabeth, said people who want truly clean water can be more assured of finding it by taking a boat a few miles offshore and swimming there.
Beach water pollution causes a range of waterborne illnesses, including stomach flu, skin rashes, ear and eye infections, hepatitis and neurological disorders.
A total of 194 beach closings or advisory days alerting swimmers to unhealthy conditions were declared in Maine last year, an increase of 73 percent from 112 days in 2011. More than 90 percent of the closing and advisory days were caused by elevated bacterial levels, the report says.
Beach closings are relatively rare, and occur only when high bacterial levels have been shown to be chronic or are known threats to public safety or health.
Environment Maine and the Natural Resources Defense Council renewed their calls for state and federal officials to take further action to strengthen water-quality monitoring standards and ensure financial support for state programs. President Obama’s fiscal year 2014 budget recommends eliminating funding for a federal grant program that Maine and many other states depend on for their monitoring programs.
Figdor also said that monitoring in Maine should be more widespread, consistent and frequent because the current program makes it too difficult for residents and visitors to get the information they need to make informed decisions about which beaches to visit.
The groups also said the addition of green infrastructure — including rain barrels, rain gardens and porous driveways and parking surfaces — could make a substantial difference, because they reduce street runoff.
More than 30 miles of public-access beaches stretch along Maine’s coast, including bays, sounds, and estuaries.
The state’s coastal beach-water quality monitoring program, Maine Healthy Beaches, is staffed by volunteer testers. It is managed by the DEP and coordinated by the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.
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