By JAIMEE LYNN FLETCHER
The Orange County Register
HUNTINGTON BEACH – A new national policy to address beach water-quality issues and other environmental concerns could help rehabilitate and protect seven Orange County beaches that have been dubbed some of the dirtiest in the state, officials say.
President Barack Obama on Friday set up a task force to devise the first national policy for sustaining and managing oceans and conserving natural resources, according to a memorandum released by the White House.
"We are taking a more integrated and comprehensive approach to developing a national ocean policy that will guide us well into the future," Obama wrote. "This policy will incorporate ecosystem-based science and management and emphasize our public stewardship responsibilities."
The group will be headed by Nancy Sutley, chairwoman of the Council on Environmental Quality, and various high-level officials.
This is the first time the federal government has created a national policy regarding beach environmental issues; however it is not the first time an administration has looked to protect beaches.
Mark Gold, president of the nonprofit environmental group Heal the Bay, said he is cautiously positive about the plan, but hopes the federal government keeps its promise.
"I think it's a good sign," Gold said. "But obviously there were incredible recommendations that came from U.S. Ocean Commission in the Bush Administration and those got completely ignored."
Vern Goehring, president of the California Fisheries Coalition, said he is also wary of the president’s plan.
“I think it’s really vague,” Goehring said. “I think it sounds like a nice concept but there are lots of details that need to be worked out.”
Beaches across the country face an array of serious issues including pollution from urban and agricultural runoff, overfishing and climate change, which can alter the acidity of the ocean and harm marine life, Gold said.
However, Goehring said overfishing isn’t a grave concern in California.
“It’s easy and cheap to throw in the concern about overfishing,” he said. “There are really no reports of overfishing going on in California.”
Goehring added he is concerned if more fishing restrictions are implemented it could mean less attention paid to pollution in the ocean.
"If they presume that shutting down fishing is ecosystem-based management then, of course, I don't think it does help," he said. "We see it frequently - they increase the restrictions on fishing then move on to something else."
One of the biggest challenges Orange County beaches face is ensuring that plastics don't get into the ocean, Gold said.
"This is a very critical issue for Orange County," he said. "Not only do we see plastic-strewn shores in some of the most remote places … but we're also seeing devastating impacts on marine life."
Heal the Bay releases weekly reports on hundreds of California beaches and once a year releases a comprehensive study.
The annual report released in May shows that 97 percent of Orange County beaches have excellent water quality during dry summer months. Orange County's cleanest beaches stretch from Seal Beach just north of San Juan Creek and from Avenida Pico to San Clemente state and city beaches.
Seven Orange County beaches failed the test, including Poche Beach in San Clemente and some smaller areas at Doheny State Beach, both of which made Heal the Bay's Beach Bummer list of the top 10 dirtiest beaches in the state.
But during the rainy season, water quality drops significantly countywide, the study shows.
Just 48 percent of Orange County's beaches received favorable marks. Last year, 58 percent of local beaches were considered to have good water quality during winter months, Heal the Bay reported.
The county also saw 18 sewage spills in 2008 totaling 668,000 gallons, many resulting in beach closures. Laguna, Doheny and Moulton Niguel Water District all closed beaches for at least four days.
Obama's task force will have three months to come up with recommendations for improving U.S. beaches and a strategy for how to implement the plan, according to the president's memorandum.
The task force is expected to work with the public and within six months produce the framework to conserve and protect the oceans.
Obama also released a proclamation naming June National Oceans Month to coincide with his push for cleaner beaches.
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