America's stunning, sinuous coastlines have long exerted an almost mystical pull on the imaginations of the country's citizens. The irresistible attraction is perhaps best described by Herman Melville in the opening pages of Moby Dick: "Nothing will content them but the extremest limit of the land.... They must get just as nigh the water as they possibly can without falling in." In recent years, millions of Americans have moved to coastal areas, particularly in the Southeast, to take advantage of their balmy climate, recreational opportunities and natural beauty. Unfortunately, rapid and poorly planned development is spoiling this beauty in a shocking way: a growing number of beaches and shellfish beds along the coast have been contaminated by disease-causing microorganisms coming from animal and human wastes.

According to a recent report by the Natural Resources Defense Council, in 2004 coastal states ordered 19,950 days of closures and pollution advisories affecting 1,234 ocean and freshwater beaches, or about one third of all the beaches regularly monitored by health officials. The total number of beach days covered by the regulatory actions was 9 percent higher than the total for 2003 (which, in turn, was 50 percent higher than the 2002 total, although that jump was partly caused by changes in federal monitoring rules). The reason for 85 percent of the closures and advisories was the detection of excessive counts of fecal bacteria in the beach waters.