BLOG POST

Beaches often aren’t safe for swimming. Thanks to monitoring, we can do something about it.

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Yesterday we released the 2020 edition of our report Safe for Swimming?, which finds that, all too often, there are unsafe levels of pollution at our beaches. This pollution leads to beach advisories and closures, and worse, can cause illness for people who go in the water. Our analysis also spotlights key threats to the continued health of our beaches: Sprawling development in coastal areas, deteriorating and outdated sewer systems, and polluting factory farms.

The findings of our report are concerning. But the report also shows something positive: We were only able to answer the question of whether beaches are safe for swimming thanks to a wealth of environmental data. And at a time when the federal government is at times seeking to curtail public access to important environmental and public health information, it’s important to recognize the benefits we get by having this kind of information available, and to understand how and why it's made available in the first place.

Our report reviewed data from more than 200,000 water quality samples, taken at more than 3,000 different beaches in every coastal and Great Lakes state. Those samples are typically taken by hand, by researchers or volunteers literally wading into the water, sometimes right after a sewage leak. Researchers then analyze the water samples in a lab and enter the results into a database and upload them to local, state and national systems where it is made available to the public.

For an example of how this all works, check out this quick video from Connecticut’s beach monitoring program:

The fact that this type of monitoring happens up and down our nation’s coasts, and all along the shores of the Great Lakes, is no accident. It’s the result of efforts at local and state levels, as well as federal legislation. In 2000, after finding that “increased population and urbanization” in coastal areas had “contributed to the decline in the environmental quality of coastal waters,” Congress passed the Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act - the BEACH Act.

The BEACH Act allowed EPA to start providing grants for water quality monitoring, giving more communities the resources they need — nearly $177 million since 2002 — to monitor water quality and keep beachgoers safe. It also required EPA to create a national database of water quality data, which lives on today as a website called BEACON. BEACON makes it easy for anyone to get detailed data for their favorite beach using its map search tool. For example, I can get data going back to 2013 for my go-to summer spot, Revere Beach north of Boston. (Many states also provide their own similar tools, often with up-to-date info.)

All this monitoring and data bring us important benefits. State and local governments use their monitoring to find when water is unsafe, and then issue advisories or close beaches when there’s a problem. The data can also be aggregated to tell a larger story about water quality in the U.S. Our new report is one example, but the EPA releases its own research, too. And the data is used by researchers to hone and improve criteria to ensure that guidelines for water safety are based on the best possible science.

But perhaps most importantly, the collection of this data gives communities the information they need to find solutions. We highlight a few such instances in the report. In the case of the Wilson River in Oregon, for example, water quality monitoring showed high bacteria levels, alerting state and local researchers to a problem. They then used additional research, including bacterial source tracking, to figure out that much of the pollution was coming from local dairy farms. Those studies led to the creation of new programs designed to reduce agricultural pollution — and ultimately led to improvements in water quality, both for the river and for the downstream Tillamook Bay.

In the case of beach monitoring, there’s still plenty of room for improvement, and need for additional funding. Today, the vast majority of beaches are monitored using methods that can take 24 hours to get results, rather than modern rapid-testing systems. And there are also thousands of beach sites around the country with no monitoring at all. Still, our national beach monitoring effort is something to be appreciated, and emulated.

Nobody likes unsafe water at their favorite beach. But it’s better to know about problems than to unnecessarily put our health at risk. Sustaining and improving environmental monitoring programs, including those at the beaches we love, is critical for understanding the issues that affect our health and environment on a daily basis. Only once we understand them, can we actually go out and fix them.

Photo: Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection