Even if the weather hasn't quite come around yet, summer is almost here. For many people, that means it's almost time to head - very, very slowly, if you leave on a Friday - to the beach.
For the environmentally conscious, however, a beach vacation is sometimes fraught with guilt. Few places exhibit man's encroachment on nature more clearly than a beach. Turn your back to the ocean, and you see rows of hotels and high-rise condos. Gas-powered jet skis skid across the ocean, and planes drag advertisements through the skies. Seeing trash in the water is depressingly commonplace.
So what can you do to minimize your impact on beaches, without denying your children their fundamental right to boogie board? It turns out that much of what you can do to protect beaches happens before you leave home.
"You live closer to the beach than you think," says Steve Fleischli, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's water program. "Your drain may lead to the ocean or to a river that leads to the ocean."
Have you ever noticed a large pipe draining into the ocean at your favorite beach and wondered what comes out of it? For the most part, it's storm water runoff - rain or snow that falls on concrete or paved surfaces, then finds its way into a drain and out to the beach. Whatever the water encounters on its way into that drain can make its way to the ocean.
"Pick up after your pet," Fleischli recommends. "Don't over-water and fertilize your lawns. Try to retain water on-site at your home with permeable surfaces rather than letting it drain down the driveway. And water your grass, not the sidewalks or street."
And once you're at the beach, stay away from those storm drains. The warm, calm pools of water that accumulate at the end of those pipes may be tempting, especially to children, but Fleischli recommends staying at least 50 yards away from the drains.
The NRDC reported that 8 percent of water samples collected from beaches in 2011 exceeded national standards for harmful bacteria. Storm water runoff was the largest known contributor to the contamination.
The good news is that the Mid-Atlantic boasts some of the cleanest beaches in the country, according to the NRDC report. Dewey and Rehoboth beaches in Delaware received the group's highest rating, as did Maryland's Ocean City at Beach 6. At Hammerman beach at Gunpowder Falls State Park in Maryland, however, 15 percent of samples exceeded national standards for bacterial contamination; at the beach in Elk Neck State Park, also in Maryland, 31 percent of samples failed, due largely to increased waterfowl droppings. A spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment says local officials are taking steps to reduce contamination levels at both beaches.
Staying away from drains is the best thing you can do for yourself at the beach, but the best thing you can do for the beach itself is to keep off the dunes. You've seen the signs. Heed them.
"Sandy dunes in barrier islands are a natural protection for the rest of the habitat on the island," says Nick Mallos, a conservation biologist for the Ocean Conservancy. "The grasses and other vegetation that grow there have roots that penetrate into the sand and stabilize the beach habitat." When storms lash the beaches, the dunes keep the sand from sliding into the sea.
Trash, of course, is an obvious eyesore. But beach littering has far-reaching consequences. Mallos says he has seen thousands of dead albatrosses with plastic items such as bottle caps, cigarette lighters and toothbrushes in their stomachs. He recalls seeing a juvenile loggerhead sea turtle trapped in what very likely came from one of the many plastic bags blowing around American beaches. In Mallos's view, it's not enough to throw your trash into garbage cans on the beach, where wind can carry it out of the container and into the sea. Instead, he suggests, take home everything you bring to the beach.
Finally, a word about sunscreen. Researchers have shown that sunscreen can cause coral bleaching, the expulsion of important algae from the hard tissue of a coral reef. Bleaching doesn't kill the reef immediately, but it leaves coral more vulnerable to disease and other stresses. According to some estimates, up to 10 percent of the world's coral reefs may suffer from exposure to sunscreen worn by snorkelers and swimmers. The Maryland, Delaware, Virginia and New Jersey beaches don't feature significant coral reefs, but if your vacation includes a visit to a coral-studded ocean such as the waters off the Florida Keys, be careful about your personal-care products. Always wear sunscreen, but try to avoid heavily touristed beaches with nearby coral reefs.