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Santa Monica State Beach just south of the Santa Monica Pier. (photo by Daniel Archuleta)

SM BEACH — A Santa Monica-based nonprofit reported that the nation’s beaches last year experienced the third-highest number of closures and advisory days in over two decades, spurring calls for stronger federal environmental regulations.

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the 3,000 beaches across the country represented in its “Testing the Waters” study reported that they were closed or had health advisories for 23,481 days in 2011.

On roughly two-thirds of those days the beaches closed because of elevated levels of bacteria known to make swimmers sick.

California, with 497 beaches included in the report, ranked 21 out of 30 states in overall beach water quality and accounted for roughly 25 percent of the nation’s beach closures and advisories.

Approximately 94 percent of California’s advisories and closures were blamed on elevated levels of bacteria associated with human and animal fecal matter.

Nine testing sites in Santa Monica reported a total of 280 days of closure or health advisory.

“Americans are swimming in pollution including human and animal waste, and it’s making us sick,” said Noah Garrison, an attorney with the NRDC.

The NRDC compiles information that states gather from water testing along their coasts and in the Great Lakes using grant money from the Environmental Protection Agency.

It then takes the total number of water samples gathered at each of the testing sites throughout the year and records the number of times that the samples exceeded the EPA’s threshold for bacteria.

According to the report, 11 percent of the samples taken at California’s testing locations exceeded federal safety standards, a 1 percent increase from the year before.

Santa Monica’s 10 testing sites ranged from 6 percent of the tests exceeding health standards at the Ashland storm drain to 25 percent of tests going over at the Wilshire Boulevard storm drain.

The numbers still represent an improvement compared to just six years ago when the drain at the Santa Monica Pier tested too high almost half of the time compared with 22 percent today.

That may seem dire compared to a report released just a month ago by another locally-based environmental nonprofit, Heal the Bay.

Heal the Bay’s report showed steady improvement at Santa Monica water testing sites, with some getting A grades and A-pluses.

Since both Heal the Bay and the NRDC use the same data for their reports, the numbers aren’t inconsistent, said Mike Grimmer, the Beach Report Card manager with Heal the Bay.

The difference is that Heal the Bay breaks up their numbers based on the season, while the NRDC does not. Santa Monica gets better grades during dry summer months, but in wet weather the scores drop off significantly.

Santa Monica officials couldn’t pinpoint the source of the pollution for a long time, said City Councilmember Terry O’Day.

Now, they believe that the vast majority of the pollution entering the water comes from stormwater runoff, rainwater that flows through yards and streets, picking up pollutants as it goes before entering the ocean.

That explains the dichotomy between Heal the Bay and NRDC’s grades, and also points to a critical challenge facing Santa Monica and the surrounding Los Angeles region — how to stop dirty water from making its way to the ocean.

Santa Monica voters passed Measure V specifically to raise money to address stormwater runoff. That money is being used to put in new infrastructure to deal with runoff, like removing concrete and replacing it with more permeable surfaces to let the water seep into the ground, losing toxins as it goes.

The process both cleans the water and helps restore the groundwater, Garrison said.

Solving the pollution problem created by urban runoff can also help Santa Monica meet its water usage goals.

City Hall committed to producing all of the water Santa Monica residents and businesses use in the course of a year by 2020 by getting more water out of local wells and by instituting cutting-edge water policies.

Capturing stormwater before it gets to the ocean and using it in the place of drinking water for things like irrigation and even toilets would be a big step toward that goal, O’Day said.

“We’re in the sweet spot,” he said.

Los Angeles County officials are now considering a parcel tax to fund water infrastructure projects for the region.

The NRDC report does more than just point out problems. It also calls on federal officials to help improve matters.

The federal government has slashed the budget for the Environmental Protection Agency, the body that deals with environmental regulations across the nation, by $230 million.

The approved budget for 2012 fell almost half a billion dollars short of what the agency had requested when it suggested cutting $947 million from its Clean Water and Drinking Water revolving funds.

The Clean Water State Revolving Fund provides low-cost funding for projects that improve water quality and renew wastewater infrastructure.

At the same time, other efforts are underway to defund the EPA, Garrison said, and the agency itself is proposing health standards for recreational water quality that it estimates would make one in 28 swimmers sick.

“In terms of the beach, it’s absolutely a danger,” Garrison said.

For more information on “Testing the Waters,” including a complete list of clean and dirty beaches, visit www.nrdc.org.

ashley@smdp.com