Safe for Swimming?
Pollution at our beaches and how to prevent it (2021 edition)

Executive Summary

The Clean Water Act, adopted in 1972, set the goal of making all of our waterways safe for swimming. Nearly a half-century later, Americans visiting their favorite beach are still met all too often by advisories warning that the water is unsafe for swimming. And each year, millions of Americans are sickened by swimming in contaminated water.

An analysis of fecal indicator bacteria sampling data from beaches in 29 coastal and Great Lakes states and Puerto Rico reveals that 328 beaches – more than one of every 10 beaches surveyed – were potentially unsafe on at least 25% of the days that sampling took place in 2020.1 More than half of all the 3,166 beaches reviewed were potentially unsafe for swimming on at least one day. Beaches were considered potentially unsafe if fecal indicator bacteria levels exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “Beach Action Value” associated with an estimated illness rate of 32 out of every 1,000 swimmers.2

To protect our health at the beach, policymakers should undertake efforts to prevent fecal pollution, including deploying natural and green infrastructure to absorb stormwater.

Fecal contamination makes beaches unsafe for swimming. Human contact with contaminated water can result in gastrointestinal illness as well as respiratory disease, ear and eye infection, and skin rash.3 Each year in the U.S., people contract an estimated 57 million cases of recreational waterborne illness from swimming in oceans, lakes, rivers and ponds.4

Our beaches are at risk. Runoff from paved surfaces, overflows from aging sewage systems, and manure from industrial livestock operations all threaten the waters where Americans swim. These pollution threats are getting worse with climate change, as more extreme precipitation events bring heavy flows of stormwater.

  • Sprawling development has created more impervious surfaces that cause runoff pollution and has destroyed natural areas like wetlands that protect beaches from contamination. From 1996 to 2016, U.S. coastal regions added 4.2 million acres of development, while losing 640,000 acres of wetland and nearly 10 million of acres of forest.5
  • America’s sewage infrastructure is deteriorating and outdated. Many communities, particularly around the Great Lakes, still use combined sewers that were designed to discharge sewage directly to waterways during heavy rainfall. Sanitary sewers, which are designed to carry sewage alone, can also spill dangerous sewage if they are not properly maintained, and overflow as many as 75,000 times each year in the U.S.6
  • The rise of factory farms has resulted in large concentrations of livestock manure that cannot be stored safely and is often overapplied to crops. All too often, rainfall washes excess manure from cropland into our waterways where it can put swimmers’ health at risk. Animal manure can also contain pathogens that are resistant to antibiotics, creating added risk to public health.7

Of more than 3,000 beaches sampled for bacteria across the country in 2020, 328 were potentially unsafe for swimming on at least 25% of days that testing took place.

  • As of May 2021, sampling data for 2020 from 3,166 beaches in 29 coastal and Great Lakes states and Puerto Rico was available through the National Water Quality Monitoring Council’s Water Quality Portal.8
  • Of those beaches, 1,689 (53%) had bacteria levels indicating potentially unsafe levels of fecal contamination for swimming on at least one day, and 328 were potentially unsafe on at least 25% of the days that sampling took place.
  • Swimmers could also be at risk at additional beaches where no bacterial testing was conducted or available through the Water Quality Portal.

Figure ES-1. Average percentage of potentially unsafe beach days in 2020 by county

 

“Average percentage” represents the average of the percentage of potentially unsafe days at each beach within a county.

Bacteria testing of ocean and Great Lakes beaches in every region of the country revealed days of potentially unsafe fecal contamination in 2020.

  • Among East Coast beaches, 837 beaches, or 47% of the 1,798 beaches tested, were potentially unsafe for at least one day in 2020. 113 beaches, 6% of those tested, were potentially unsafe on at least 25% of the days that testing took place.
  • Among Great Lakes beaches, 297 beaches, or 60% of the 497 beaches tested, were potentially unsafe for at least one day in 2020. 59 beaches, 12% of those tested, were potentially unsafe on at least 25% of the days that testing took place.
  • Among Gulf Coast beaches, 220 beaches, or 82% of the 268 beaches tested, were potentially unsafe for at least one day in 2020. 75 beaches, 28% of those tested, were potentially unsafe on at least 25% of the days that testing took place.
  • Among West Coast beaches, 252 beaches, or 72% of the 351 beaches tested, were potentially unsafe for at least one day in 2020. 62 beaches, 18% of those tested, were potentially unsafe on at least 25% of the days that testing took place.

In every coastal and Great Lakes state and in Puerto Rico, sampling revealed potentially unsafe levels of contamination in 2020. (The figures below are based on U.S. EPA’s Beach Action Value. Many states use other thresholds for beach closure and advisory decisions. Therefore, results presented in this report may differ from state reports on beach water quality. See Methodology for details.)

Table ES-1. Every state had beaches with potentially unsafe days in 2020

State Beaches tested in 2020 Beaches with at least one potentially unsafe day Beaches with at least 25% potentially unsafe days
Alabama 24 21 8
California 258 193 42
Connecticut 65 46 11
Delaware 23 4 1
Florida 266 185 13
Georgia 26 17 3
Hawaii 218 55 14
Illinois 41 32 12
Indiana 21 18 1
Louisiana 23 21 10
Maine 61 36 15
Maryland 62 34 6
Massachusetts 556 264 29
Michigan 196 69 15
Minnesota 46 23 2
Mississippi 21 21 16
New Hampshire 16 9 3
New Jersey 210 34 2
New York 340 172 15
North Carolina 210 87 7
Ohio 54 49 14
Oregon 19 18 14
Pennsylvania 8 8 2
Puerto Rico 34 28 5
Rhode Island 65 30 13
South Carolina 23 20 7
Texas 61 55 31
Virginia 49 29 4
Washington 74 41 6
Wisconsin 96 70 7

To ensure that all of our beaches are safe for swimming, policymakers should work to protect beaches from runoff and sewage pollution – including by stopping pollution at its source, and by protecting natural areas. Solutions include:

  • Dramatically increasing funding to fix sewage systems and prevent runoff pollution through natural and green infrastructure, including rain gardens, permeable pavement and green roofs.
  • Protecting wetlands, which filter out pollutants like bacteria, and streams, which flow to coastal areas where people swim.
  • Enacting moratoriums on new or expanded industrial-scale livestock operations, particularly in areas that threaten our beaches and other waterways.

Policymakers should also ensure that swimmers are presented with the best-possible information to make decisions regarding their health. Officials should expand funding for beach testing, to ensure adequate testing at all beaches. States should use EPA’s most protective “Beach Action Value” bacteria standard for making beach advisory decisions and should work to implement same-day bacteria testing and warning systems.

 

 


  1. See Methodology for details on data sources.↩︎
  2. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2012 Recreational Water Quality Criteria, 2012, archived at http://web.archive.org/web/20190502174719/https://www.epa.gov/sites/prod....↩︎
  3. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, National Beach Guidance and Required Performance Criteria for Grants, 2014 Edition, 31 July 2014, archived at https://web.archive.org/web/20180706154821/https://nepis.epa.gov/Exe/ZyP....↩︎
  4. See Table 3: Stephanie DeFlorio-Barker et al., “Estimate of incidence and cost of recreational waterborne illness on United States surface waters,” Environ Health, 9 January 2018, doi: 10.1186/s12940-017-0347-9.↩︎
  5. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Land Cover Change Fast Facts, date not provided, archived on 6 May 2021 at http://web.archive.org/web/20210506110239/https://coast.noaa.gov/states/....↩︎
  6. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Sanitary Sewer Overflows (SSOs), archived on 4 June 2019 at http://web.archive.org/web/20190604222204/https://www.epa.gov/npdes/sani....↩︎
  7. Amy Sapkota et al., “Antibiotic-resistant enterococci and fecal indicators in surface water and groundwater impacted by a concentrated swine feeding operation,” Environmental Health Perspectives, July 2007, doi: 10.1289/ehp.9770.↩︎
  8. * In the context of our findings, “beaches” in this report refer to recreational waters listed by the U.S. EPA under the Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health (BEACH) Act of 2000. Some “beaches” consist of multiple sampling sites. This represents a change from the 2019 (but not 2020) edition of this report, which assessed individual sampling sites. For this and other reasons, meaningful comparisons cannot be made between findings in this and previous reports. Testing data for city of Chicago beaches is from a local source, not the Water Quality Portal. See Methodology for details.↩︎