What Will Happen to Your Favorite Beach After Climate Change?

Americans have long cherished their beaches, and each year they prove it in droves. An estimated 200 million Americans made more than 2 billion visits to beaches in 2010; that’s over twice as many trips that were made to all national and state parks, and 16 times as many visits made to all commercial theme parks. This makes U.S. beaches the largest attraction of the entire national travel and tourism industry; one of the few U.S. economic sectors to stay vibrant despite the downturns of the Great Recession.

But underneath the surface of sandy shores and rolling tides, the ecology of American beaches is quickly changing. More than half of the U.S. population now lives in coastal watersheds, which comprises of less than a fifth of total U.S. land area. The NOAA reports that coastal populations have swelled by 45 percent since 1970, with no end to growth in sight. As rapid development in mushrooming communities pushes these areas’ infrastructures—originally designed to serve smaller populations—to their breaking point, it increasingly results in polluted beaches and coastal waters. Coastal communities are also more vulnerable than ever to the effects of climate change, as beach erosion and extreme weather threaten the livelihoods and safety of residents.

The challenges of pollution and changing climate could jeopardize the boon of beaches to both the economy and our collective peace of mind. Unless systemic changes are made to radically reduce waste we produce in coastal waters and the atmosphere, Americans may no longer be able to escape the stresses of modern life by lounging at the shore; they’ll instead be confronted by them right at the water’s edge.

What’s ailing U.S. beaches?

Decaying Wastewater Infrastructure

While most are aware of litter, watercraft, and occasional and devastating oil spills as sources of beach pollution, the biggest threat to American beaches comes from obsolete sewage and stormwater control systems in coastal regions. The American Society of Civil Engineers’ (ASCE) latest Infrastructure Report Card gives the nation’s wastewater systems a barely passing ‘D' grade.' The report estimates that many of these weakening systems were installed after World War II and are responsible for discharging 900 billion gallons of untreated sewage per year into local waterways. These overflows occur when a local wastewater system doesn’t have the capacity to handle high volume, such as after a storm, and so in order to prevent waste from flooding back into homes and businesses, these systems release excess untreated water into local streams and rivers connected to lakes and oceans where people swim.

The Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) highlighted inadequate infrastructure as a primary source of beach pollution in its annual ‘Testing the Waters’ report on the quality of U.S. beaches, but their report also emphasizes the role of stormwater runoff in contaminating beach waters. In the Northeast and the Great Lakes, stormwater tends to be channeled into combined sewer systems with wastewater, raising the risk of untreated overflow into local waterways. Last year, the NRDC identified the Great Lakes as the region with the greatest need for enhanced storm and wastewater systems, requiring more than $100 billion in repairs just to restore it to “a basic level of functionality.” The Lakes also supply more than 20 percent of the world’s freshwater, so failure to fix system-sourced pollution could also imperil the region’s drinking water supply.

On the West Coast, where stormwater systems tend to be separate from sewer mains, rain or snowmelt flows across roofs, streets, and industrial sites, collecting residual oils, pesticides, animal waste, and other contaminants as it makes its way into storm drains, emptying into watersheds. The EPA estimates that these sources of pollution sicken at least 3.5 million beach visitors per year, and days where beaches close due to poor water quality result in hefty economic losses for workers and businesses.

Climate Change

If contaminated water is the existential threat to beaches caused by waste on the surface, climate change is the threat caused by airborne waste in the form of carbon emissions. Coastal erosion around the world is driven by sea level rise; a product of rising global temperature caused by overheated greenhouses gases trapped in the atmosphere. Melting ice caps at both poles are adding vast quantities of water to the planet’s oceans, raising critical questions about what can be done to save beachside communities from eventually being swept away. Sea level rise is a primary threat to California beaches, as higher tides and larger waves will erode beaches and permeate sewage systems, increasing water contamination on the shore and flooding in urban areas. Sea level rise also has the potential to breach freshwater sources, fouling it with pollutants and saltwater and thereby increasing freshwater scarcity in a region already suffering from unprecedented drought. In the Northwest sea level rise is not expected to be as severe, but the National Climate Assessment still warns that beaches and the wetlands which insulate them will be degraded by higher tides and sea water infiltration. Increased human development and heavier storms will also increase the volume of urban runoff into coastal waters.

Areas prone to extreme rain systems will be even more vulnerable, as the rising water will enable storms to reach further inland, compounding their destructive effect. Sea level in the Northeast is predicted to elevate at a faster rate than global sea rise, increasing the likelihood of coastal flooding. Between 1958 and 2010, the region witnessed a 70 percent increase in extreme precipitation; Hurricanes Irene and Sandy are early examples of disruptive weather events the Northeast can expect with higher frequency in the future. These forces will erode beaches and decrease water quality unless infrastructure is adapted with climate change in mind; meaning the widespread combined sewer systems of New England and the New York metro area must be replaced to prevent stormwater runoff and overflows from contaminating local water bodies. The Southeast is also particularly vulnerable, as the region’s frequently extreme weather will intersect with sea level rise in low-lying coastal areas to seriously compromise water drainage infrastructure. As the sea creeps inland into drainage systems, rain won’t be able to empty into the ocean and will instead flood back into streets and homes. Even Florida Republicans who don't acknowledge climate change are taking steps to mitigate these destructive effects by raising roads, installing underground pumping systems, and redesigning storm drainage.

Interior beaches are just as susceptible to erosion. The U.S. National Climate Assessment for the Great Lakes warns that increased precipitation wrought by climate change will continue to amplify combined sewer overflows and surface runoff, degrading regional water quality. These same aggressive weather systems will also increase beach erosion, as shores previously protected by winter ice are now left exposed to more powerful rain, stronger waves, and greater flooding. Municipalities nationally are investing in measures such as sand replacement that will preserve beaches in the short-term, but ultimately these efforts will prove unsustainable unless the rate of climate change can be slowed or, more improbably, reversed with a reduction in carbon emissions.

A One-Two Punch

The dilemma of climate change is exacerbating the problem of pollution in a pernicious way that makes the need to fix water control systems much more urgent. For beaches eroding under rising sea levels, water control systems are progressively more exposed to saltwater creeping inland, which can infiltrate and corrode sewer lines while conveying pathogens back to recreational waters. On northern coasts, extreme storms are becoming more frequent, raising the likelihood of combined sewer overflows into streams. Another danger is sea rising into tidal freshwater wetlands, which serve as natural sinks for surface runoff and keep it from draining into coastal waters. If the sea overtakes wetlands in many areas, then there will be no natural barrier between pollutant-filled runoff and beach waters where it winds up. Urban development also threatens wetlands, as paving over them allows runoff to flow directly into the sea. Unless water control infrastructure is redesigned and strengthened in many coastal communities, pollution will get worse as climate change brings additional pressure to bear on dilapidated wastewater systems.

What Can Be Done?

Preserving the quality of American beaches will be extremely difficult into the future, as there are conflicting interests at play. A major stress on beach quality comes from the wastewater and surface runoff of growing urban communities in coastal watersheds, so in order to reduce those sources of pollution, coastal population density should be reduced. This would mean less building permits issued by municipalities (granted at a rate of 1,876 per day in coastal watershed counties from 2000 to 2010), less impermeable surface area in the form of roads and streets, and more conserved pollutant-filtering wetlands to catch runoff. But given the outsized role coastal regions now play in our national economy, and the need of cities for more tax revenue to finance infrastructure improvement, turning people and businesses away seems unlikely to ever be economically palatable.

For these same reasons, installing improved infrastructure in these areas conflicts with short-term interests. Citizens in many communities have never been charged for stormwater treatment services because they haven’t been legally enshrined as utilities. Imposing new user fees for stormwater infrastructure and higher user fees for wastewater improvement raises protests from financially struggling residents, and politicians who regulate these services do not want to get on voters’ bad side. For example in the Gulf, state chapters of the ASCE report large funding gaps between anticipated needs for wastewater system repair and available state revenue, but the prospect of raising funds via user fees isn’t very feasible due to a low tax base caused by high unemployment. Gulf states depend on private financing and federal assistance to fund infrastructure repair, making them more vulnerable in the long-term than wealthier coastal communities. In more affluent areas, local governments will have to educate their constituencies on the real price of clean water, both at beaches and from our taps, to have any hope of convincing the public to contribute to infrastructure investment. ASCE chapters in California, Georgia, Maryland, North Carolina, and Oregon all report the same lack of dedicated funding for storm and wastewater infrastructure. Perhaps they should heed Florida’s model: the state’s dedicated stormwater utilities, which charge public user fees, are prime examples of how coastal communities can start funding these needed services locally and sustainably.

But given the national scale of this predicament, Congress could be doing much more to help finance storm and wastewater infrastructure. Amendments to the Clean Water Act in 1987 established Clean Water State Revolving Funds (CWSRF) in every state, to which Congress annually appropriates funds which are then matched by state governments; low-interest loans from these funds help municipalities finance clean water infrastructure. Yet from 2008 to 2012, after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported that $298 billion is needed to upgrade the country’s waste and stormwater systems, Congress only appropriated around $1.8 billion per year to the CWSRFs. This is obviously far short of coastal communities’ present needs, and given their crucial role in propping up the national economy and federal tax revenue, Congress should consider reciprocating more generously.

Yet, even if the huge funding gaps for clean water infrastructure are filled by concerned taxpayers and federal assistance, and waste and stormwater systems are sufficiently modernized, all efforts will ultimately amount to naught in the devastating wake of climate change. If we collectively cannot even consider the loss of beaches as a compelling enough reason to seriously reduce greenhouse gas emissions, how many other natural landscapes and resources are we taking for granted?