EPA decision to defund water testing creates risk

The federal Environmental Protection Agency has hung coastal counties out to dry by threatening to withdraw all funding for ocean water testing.

At issue is $10 million in annual grants that have helped state and local agencies — including San Luis Obispo County — test ocean water for contaminants that can make swimmers sick.

While funding is secure for the coming fiscal year ending in June 2013, the EPA is proposing to discontinue it after that.

The EPA’s justification for cutting the funding is as arrogant as it is absurd: “States and local governments now have the technical expertise and procedures to continue beach monitoring without federal support.”

This isn’t about “technical expertise.” Rather, it’s about funding the staff and equipment to collect and analyze samples; to post health advisories if necessary; and to conduct follow-up testing to ensure the water is again safe.

San Luis Obispo County has received approximately $25,000 per year from the EPA. The state of California provides an additional $23,000, and the county allocates $70,000 to $80,000 annually to cover the cost of weekly testing at 19 sites.

County environmental health officials consider the weekly testing program to be bare-bones; some jurisdictions do daily testing.

Yet if EPA funding is lost, the county may have to drop some of the testing sites.

That would be unfortunate, because the tests frequently turn up bacteria counts high enough to warrant posting health advisories, which warn beachgoers to avoid ocean contact. Advisories have been posted, at one time or another, at just about every beach in the county: Pismo, Avila, Olde Port, Cayucos, Morro Bay.

Even more alarming, over the past few years, there have been 11 occasions when conditions were so bad that county environmental health closed a stretch of shoreline to all ocean contact.

While there have not been confirmed outbreaks of illness associated with swimming, there have been anecdotal reports of ear and skin infections and stomach problems. With the possibility of cutbacks looming, the local chapter of the Surfrider Foundation plans to resume its own testing program.

That’s good news. However, the county will not be able to use those results to issue advisories or to close beaches. For that, it needs to collect and analyze samples.

To its credit, the Board of Supervisors has been supportive of the testing program; should the EPA funding dry up, the board could opt to increase financial support to keep the program whole.

However, not every coastal community may see it that way.

At a time when so many state and local agencies are struggling to balance their budgets, it’s dangerous for the EPA to assume that every jurisdiction will be able to replace lost grant funding.

We strongly urge the EPA to continue to partner with local agencies in providing financial support for a program that protects the environment, the public health and the economy of coastal communities.

To find out more

Ocean monitoring reports: Go to www.slocounty.ca.gov/health/publichealth/ehs/beach.htm for San Luis Obispo County ocean monitoring reports.

Water testing plans: Go to slo.surfrider.org to learn more about the Surfrider Foundation’s plans for water testing.

Editorials are the opinion of The Tribune.