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Wherever you live, you depend on clean, healthy oceans. Whether for food, recreation, or science, it is important that our oceans remain clean and safe. And lately, scientists have devoted increased resources to evaluate our coastal waters, which is where our land and our oceans meet.

For example, scientists in California are now busy taking the pulse of the ocean floor. A seven-station network of ocean floor sensors provides ongoing readings of ocean temperature, salinity, turbidity, sea level and chlorophyll fluorescence, a measure of phytoplankton, the base of most marine food chains. This monitoring is occurring along the California coast.

An evaluation of all of the sensor data can be used for forecasting coastal water quality. The system can also be used to track the strength of an El Niño with its temperature sensor capabilities. You might recall that El Niños are characterized by unusually warm water. All in all, scientists hope to better understand coastal water conditions through this new and innovative monitoring program.

Throughout the country, all of our coastal waters just received a report card from the federal government. And, the news is not so good: the coastal waters received roughly a "C" grade.

While you would have thought that the picture would have been much more encouraging after so many years of environmentalism, many coastal waters are not as healthy as they should be. Much more work is needed. Of course, many areas are better off than others.

The report card was actually called the "The National Coastal Condition Report." This was the first large scale coastal water evaluation in this country, rating overall conditions as fair to poor, varying from region to region. Note that "fair" was the best overall grade any of our coastal waters received.

The purpose of the report is to allow scientists, environmental managers, and the public to make educated decisions concerning the protection of coastal resources and to increase awareness of the extent and severity of pollution in coastal waters. The report can also function as a benchmark for analyzing the progress of coastal management programs.

The grading process required that the feds consider seven factors, for example water clarity, dissolved oxygen, sediments, fish contamination, and coastal wetlands loss. The factors were individually assessed, and then added together for a final rating for each coastal geographic area. The Northeast, Gulf of Mexico and the Great Lakes are generally in fair to poor condition. Southeastern and west coastal waters were generally in fair ecological condition.

Water clarity is good on the west coast and northeastern areas, and not as good in the Gulf of Mexico, southeast and the Great Lakes. Again, these are general area wide assessments. Some areas within a particular region made be healthier than other areas within the same region.

Each year, the Federal government invests about $225 million for research and monitoring programs in the coastal areas. However, there are currently no nationally consistent, comprehensive monitoring programs to provide the information necessary for effective management of coastal systems. It appears that we are now working in that direction, however. And that can only be good news for all of us.

As my 14 year old is quick to say, a "C" grade is certainly much better than a failing grade. But, we all need to do better. Coastal water assessments will help us understand the current state of affairs, and will also allow us to provide enhanced protection in areas that need it.

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