Skip to Highlights
Highlights

Waterborne pathogens can contaminate water and sand at beaches and threaten human health. Under the Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health (BEACH) Act, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) developed limits on pathogens that states use to assess beach water quality. EPA can also provide grants to states to develop water quality monitoring and public notification programs. GAO was asked to assess (1) the extent to which EPA implemented the BEACH Act including how it allocated grants to the states, (2) the monitoring and notification programs developed by Great Lakes states, and (3) the effect of the BEACH Act on water quality monitoring and contamination at Great Lakes beaches.

Skip to Recommendations

Recommendations

Matter for Congressional Consideration

Matter Status Comments
As it considers reauthorization of the BEACH Act, Congress may wish to consider providing EPA some flexibility in awarding BEACH Act grants to allow states to undertake limited research to identify specific sources of contamination at monitored beaches and certain actions to mitigate these problems, as specified by EPA.
Closed - Not Implemented
In March 2017, GAO reviewed the status of the 2007 Matter for Congressional Consideration. While various bills have been proposed, the BEACH Act has not been reauthorized.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Environmental Protection Agency To ensure that EPA complies with the requirements laid out in the BEACH Act, the Administrator of EPA should establish a definitive time line for completing the studies on pathogens and their effects on human health, and for publishing new or revised water quality criteria for pathogens and pathogen indicators.
Closed - Implemented
In response to GAO's recommendation, in August 2007, EPA published its Critical Path Science Plan to communicate the agency's high priority research that it intends to conduct to establish the scientific foundation for new or revised recreational water quality criteria. As outlined in the Science Plan, EPA intends to conduct ongoing scientific research from July 2007 to December 2010, during which the agency will undertake several scientific studies including rapid water quality testing methods using molecular biology techniques. According to EPA, the agency expects to analyze and synthesize the study results and develop and publish the new or revised recreational water criteria and supplementary information from January 2011 to December 2012. Following issuance of the plan, EPA further refined its timeline for completing the studies on pathogens with the following key dates: EPA will complete an epidemiological study in a tropical region no later than December 15, 2010. EPA will complete an epidemiological study in marine waters impacted by urban runoff in a temperate region no later than December 15, 2010. EPA will sign for publication in the Federal Register a notice of availability of new or revised water quality criteria for pathogen or pathogen indicators by October 15, 2012. The Criteria Development Plan date was December 2012.
Environmental Protection Agency To ensure that EPA complies with the requirements laid out in the BEACH Act, the Administrator of EPA should, if current funding levels remain the same, revise the formula for distributing BEACH Act grants to better reflect the states' varied monitoring needs by reevaluating the formula factors to determine if the weight of the beach season factor should be reduced and if the weight of the other factors, such as beach use and beach miles should be increased.
Closed - Implemented
In response to GAO's 2007 recommendation, in 2008 EPA announced that it was considering retaining the original grant formula and implementing another change to address those needs. Specifically, on August 13, 2008, EPA published changes to the allocation formula that the Agency expected to implement starting with the BEACH Act grants to be awarded in 2010 (73 FR 47154). That funding formula change would shift funds from states not fully using their grants to states that use their grant funds and have more beach miles at which they could conduct monitoring and notification. EPA developed a supplemental formula based on beach miles and beach use that applies to any appropriated funds above $10 million and to any unspent funds being reallocated. EPA revised the BEACH Act grant allocation formula effective with the FY2010 grants.
Environmental Protection Agency To ensure that EPA complies with the requirements laid out in the BEACH Act and to better ensure consistent levels of public health protection, the Administrator of EPA should provide states and localities with specific guidance on monitoring frequency and methods and public notification.
Closed - Implemented
EPA issued "National Beach guidance and Required Performance Criteria for Grants" in 2014. GAO followed up with EPA in July 2016 and determined that the guidance meets the intent of the recommendation. Specifically, EPA has developed guidance for states to develop tiered monitoring plans and how to set priorities for monitoring based on risk to human health. EPA included both models and rapid molecular testing methods to be used in monitoring. EPA also developed guidance for states to use Beach Action Values, developed in its 2012 Recreation Water Quality Standards, as the threshold for notifications.

Full Report