10/17/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A Surprise Way to Keep Our Beaches Clean: Pass a Climate Bill

For the more than two decades I have been working to clean up our nation's beaches and waterways, the Clean Water Act has been the primary tool of my trade. But this year, I have a new solution to turn to: the clean energy and climate bill working its way through Congress.

What does an energy bill have to do with beachwater? An awful lot, it turns out, because global warming poses an immediate risk to nearly every town and city beach across the country.

I saw for myself how this works just a few weeks ago. Like millions of Americans, I fled the August heat by heading to the beach. My family chose Block Island, just off the coast of Rhode Island, for our swimming holiday. But our trip was cut short when Hurricane Bill loomed on the horizon and prompted many vacationers to evacuate.

It turns out Hurricane Bill wasn't as powerful as expected. Still, I don't regret leaving early. I have learned from my years as a water advocate that you don't want to swim at the beach after a powerful rainstorm, whether it's a hurricane or a sudden downpour.

Why? Because when it rains on town and city streets, water rushes into storm drains, pulling oil, toxins, and fertilizers along with it. In many communities, stormwater gets passed through the same pipes as sewage, and when the system gets swamped by rain, the sewage gets dumped raw -- with all its cargo of infectious bacteria, viruses, and parasites -- right next to nearby beaches.

In NRDC's Testing the Waters: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches, we discovered that there were more than 20,000 days of closings and advisories in 2008. Stormwater runoff was the number one identified cause.

Global warming could send these beach closing numbers through the roof.

Global warming will cause more extreme storm events, including downpours. And the more powerful storms we have, the more pathogens will end up in our beaches -- specifically more microbes that cause stomach flu, diarrhea, skin rashes, and neurological and blood infections.

Luckily, those of us who care about keeping our beaches safe and clean and open have this new tool at our disposal: the climate legislation that passed through the House in June and is now headed to the Senate.

The bill could help protect our beaches in three critical ways.

  1. It will set firm limits on global warming pollution, which will help minimize the impacts of climate change, including storm events.
  2. It calls for protecting the wetlands, coastal dunes, and other natural systems that buffer us from storms and help filter out pollutants in stormwater.
  3. It offers funding for water utilities and sewage treatment plants to update their storm drains and make their infrastructure more resilient to climate change.

Since the Senate has not yet released its own version of the bill, we don't yet know exactly which programs will be included in the final version. But I remain optimistic.

Senator Ben Cardin from Maryland, for instance, is not only a member of the Environment and Public Works Committee charged with drafting the Senate climate bill, but he is also the chair of the Water and Wildlife Subcommittee. He is well informed about and able to communicate the interplay between fighting global warming and keeping our water clean.

I encourage you to add your voice to this effort. Click here to tell your senator that you support combating climate change and preserving our beaches at the same time. You can also click here to find out how well your favorite beaches are handling stormwater, and then contact your local officials to encourage them to support the climate bill -- the newest thing in clean water protection.

This post originally appeared on NRDC's Switchboard blog.