Health testing at beaches in California and across the nation is at risk of being cut under a plan to eliminate federal funds for monitoring whether the water is too contaminated to swim in.
Citing the "difficult financial climate," the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said in its budget request this week that it would do away with $10 million in grants it gives each year to state and local agencies in coastal and Great Lakes states to test for tainted water.
"While beach monitoring continues to be important to protect human health and especially sensitive individuals," the EPA said in an emailed statement, "states and local governments now have the technical expertise and procedures to continue beach monitoring without federal support."
But state and local officials have struggled to pay for health testing along California's busy coastline in recent years, and water quality advocates worry that swimmers and surfers will be at even greater risk of getting sick if the federal funds evaporate.
The proposed cuts come as the agency is drafting new nationwide beach water quality standards, which have been panned by environmental groups as being even weaker than the 1986 rules they replace.
"It feels like a double whammy to beachgoers," said Kirsten James, water quality director for Santa Monica environmental group Heal the Bay. "The EPA is on multiple levels telling them they are swimming at their own risk every time they go to the beach."
The EPA has paid $111 million for beach water quality testing over the last dozen years through the grant program authorized by Congress in the 2000 BEACH Act. "As a result, the number of monitored beaches has more than tripled to more than 3,600 in 2010," the agency announced last month.
The grants slated for elimination pay for local health and environmental protection agencies to conduct water quality tests and post warning signs or even close the beach when bacteria levels indicate the water is too contaminated.
Swimming in polluted water exposes people to pathogens that can cause gastrointestinal illness, diarrhea, vomiting, skin rashes and ear, eye and staph infections.
California is eligible for about $500,000 each year, second only to Florida, and uses the EPA funds to supplement beach water monitoring up and down the coast.
"The cut could reduce the amount of testing unless other funding sources are found," Judie Panneton, a spokeswoman for the state water board, wrote in an email.
State and county budget cuts have in recent years led California beaches to scale back testing, though a law signed last year by Gov. Jerry Brown restored funding at the state level, giving the water board authority to provide up to $1.8 million a year to pay for more consistent testing at hundreds of beaches.
Environmental groups said they would press the EPA to restore money for beach monitoring and strengthen water quality standards as they try to determine which states might see their testing programs curtailed without federal funds.
"The potential is that states will decrease the number of beaches they monitor, the frequency or cut back on resources they use to notify the public about conditions at the beach," said Jon Devine, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council's water program.
"We'd likely see a reduction in information about an important public health concern," he added.