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Gains for Boston-area beaches, warning on cutbacks

Panel calls for further spending on staff, equipment, public programs

Beachgoers enjoyed Nahant on Sunday. A commission said more state funding for beaches would have wide impact.

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Beachgoers enjoyed Nahant on Sunday. A commission said more state funding for beaches would have wide impact.

State-owned beaches in Greater Boston are in much better condition than they were several years ago — the waters off South Boston are now deemed among the cleanest of the country’s urban beaches — but those gains are in jeopardy unless funding is found to support continued efforts, according to a state-authorized study to be released Tuesday.

The report by the Metropolitan Beaches Commission, which looked at 15 beaches from Lynn to Hull, found that nearly all are cleaner and extensive repairs to infrastructure such as sidewalks and bathhouses have made them more attractive and accessible to the public.

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“We’ve been able to make great progress and bring these beaches back from a really poor condition to where people can enjoy them,” said state Senator Thomas McGee, a Lynn Democrat who cochaired the commission, which held 10 public hearings last year.

However, the panel warned that these gains are imperiled unless the state reverses big staffing cuts in its beach division, replaces aging maintenance and cleanup equipment, and makes the beaches even more attractive by expanding events and other public programming there.

“These beaches are regional assets that are heavily used by more than 1 million people on a regular basis,” said Bruce Berman, spokesman for Save the Harbor/Save the Bay, a nonprofit group that produced the report for the commission. “They are the prime recreational outlet for a lot of people who can’t afford to hop away for a week or two to Cape Cod or Cape Ann.”

The state’s beach staff, from maintenance workers to lifeguards, has been cut 11 percent — from the equivalent of 405 full-time jobs in 2008 to 359 in 2012, according to the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, which employs the workers.

The commission also identified a need for short-term capital projects totaling $12.9 million, including $1 million for flood mitigation and reconfiguration at Tenean Beach in Dorchester, which was found to be in poor condition.

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In addition, the report said the state provides almost no funding for free beach programs such as sand-sculpture contests and children’s events. The commission recommended that the state dedicate 5 percent of its money spent on beach maintenance, or about $280,000 annually, to these programs.

“We believe that government has a responsibility to invest in programs on these beaches just as it does on the Esplanade,” Berman said. “It’s a very small amount of money with a big return in economic impact.”

Despite dozens of specific recommendations for upgrades along 19 miles of beaches, the report praised what the commission called a “sea change” in their condition.

In Revere, for example, the nation’s first public beach has become one of the region’s cleanest after suffering for years with trash problems and neglect. In Winthrop, a major project to replenish the beach sand is underway, the commission reported. And along Wollaston Beach in Quincy, street and sidewalk improvements have enhanced what has long been a magnet for walkers and runners.

“These investments are what we do best in government, making public places a place where we can bring our children and be proud of,” McGee said. Approximately 100,000 people a week are estimated to visit the beaches between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

Richard Herbert, a charter member of the Friends of Wollaston Beach, agreed that the Quincy beach is a nicer place now. “It looks a lot better, and it’s well-maintained, but the ongoing problem has been and will always be the runoff from outfall pipes,” Herbert said.

The commission agreed that more work is needed on water quality at Wollaston, and that beach closings there must be better correlated to real-time conditions. Occasionally, beaches have been closed based on readings that are no longer valid.

The commission, composed of members from government, civic, and business groups, was charged with reviewing what progress had been made since its first and only report on the beaches in 2007. The hearings in 2013 attracted about 1,000 people.

“We found that many of the basic amenities that were lacking in 2007 are now working,” Berman said. “There’s better maintenance, better trash pickup, and better relations between DCR and the local communities.”

The state spent approximately $60 million on improvements between 2007 and 2012, Berman said.

More work remains, the commission reported. Beach closings still occur because of storm runoff, and infrastructure from water fountains to bathrooms needs repair and renovation.

An environmental bond bill pending at the state House contains about $60 million to address these and other beach improvements.

McGee said he is hopeful that the Legislature will consolidate and continue the upward trajectory of the beaches, including the approval of funding to help return staffing to the pre-recession levels of 2008. “Unless beach staffing is returned to more optimal levels, the beaches will inevitably reenter a cycle of decline,” the report said.

The question now is, “How do we keep moving forward?’ ” McGee said. “The key is to continue to focus on what these investments mean.”

McGee said he had filed an amendment, accepted during the ongoing budget process, that would make the commission a permanent body. As such, the panel could meet regularly, perhaps once a year, to assess the beaches.

Berman echoed the senator’s argument that ongoing review of the beaches is important to their long-term health.

For proof, he said, look no further than the last seven years. “Having sustained attention to this has resulted in substantial improvement,” Berman said.

Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at macquarrie@globe.com.

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