Why our beaches may not be safe

During the 2009 swimming season, states and territories closed beaches more than 6,000 times, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. What does that mean for your coastal vacation this month?
Written by Melanie D.G. Kaplan, Inactive on

The Environmental Protection Agency monitors 3,819 coastal beaches for 37 states, territories and tribes. During the 2009 swimming season, these jurisdictions issued notification actions, or closed beaches, 6,203times, according to the EPA.

Last week I talked to Lars Wilcut, an EPA environmental protection specialist and a member of the EPA Beach Team, about how beaches become contaminated, what municipalities do to monitor the water and how technology will help accelerate water testing in the future.

Bottom line: Before you bust out your boogie board and head for the surf, pay attention to alerts about water quality. (And don’t forget your sunscreen.)

The EPA Beach Team. I’m picturing you all out there with Pamela Anderson. But I’m assuming that’s not the case. What does the Beach Team do?

We implement the BEACH (Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health) Act and help states [30 states, five Atlantic and Pacific territories and two tribes] by giving them about $10 million in grants a year. They use the money to monitor and notify the public and to develop and implement their beach monitoring programs. We provide them with technical support. And we do sometimes get to go to the beach.

How are the beaches monitored?

Our criteria are from 1986, and they are for two bacteria—E. coli and Enterococci, and the E. coli is non-parasitic. They take a water sample and send it back to a lab and culture that sample to determine whether these bacteria are there. If they are above a certain limit they are supposed to be notifying the public. One of the requirements for us in the BEACH Act is to administer a publicly accessible database of this information, so we have information on when advisories or closures were posted.

How do these beaches get contaminated?

There are a number of different things that can happen: storm water, rainfall, sewer overflows, problems with wastewater treatment plants, wildlife, discharges from ships, pets that people bring onto the beach that they don’t clan up after--which is one of my personal pet peeves.

How do you know when a beach is in poor enough condition to close?

What we’re looking at are what we call indicators of eco-contamination. We’re not looking at the pathogens—the things that make people sick. We’re looking at the bacteria that gives us an idea that there was some eco-contamination in some place. So when the bacteria is high enough, that’s how we know we have a problem.

What are some of the trends in beach contamination?

What we’re finding is that to a fairly large extent [contamination] is dependent on rainfall. When you have a dry summer like we had in certain parts of the country last year, you see a lower volume of bacteria levels. When you have a wetter season, you see more closures and advisories.

I think also in terms of trends, states are getting better at figuring out the sources. It’s relatively easy to monitor and tell people; the costly problem is figuring out what the problem is and then solving it, like if it’s a sewer problem. But there are many local success stories where cities took a look at their sewer issues and were able to fix the problem and ended up with a very clean beach.

What else can municipalities do?

The beach-going public deserves to know the water quality at their beaches and to expect their local, state and federal governments to be honest with them about the problems and risks.

Our waters are amazingly clean. Nationally, our beaches are open about 95 percent of the time. That’s been consistent over the last four years.

Are you using or piloting any new technology that will help with the monitoring?

The holy grail would be a handheld probe that you could put in the water and get an instantaneous reading. But we’re most excited about Q-PCR, or Quantitative Polymerase Chain Reaction. It’s an RNA-based technology, which is much quicker than the culture-based technology. So you take a water sample, but you run it through a machine that takes a couple to four or six hours instead of 18 hours.

So if it’s taking 18 hours now to test the water, that’s 18 hours that the beach may not be safe for humans.

Yes. We recognize that is a gap in our ability to manage and protect public health. Many states say they know this amount of rain means [we’re going to have a] problem, and we’re not going to wait for the result, so we’ll preemptively say people shouldn’t swim here for the next 24 to 48 hours.

We’re also looking at developing predictive models--looking at all aspects of a beach and having an excellent idea of what to expect given certain environmental situations.

What’s an example of that?

One of our labs has developed a model calledVirtual Beach [public domain software]. It takes information specific to a beach—tides, water temperature, winds, sedimentation sources--and plugs it all in. It’ll tell you, given these conditions, this is what you can expect to see in terms of water quality. Then the beach manager can take steps to close a beach because he has certainty about the quality of the water.

We’ll also be coming out with new rules in 2012 that beach managers and water managers need to implement in their water quality standards. We’re interested in looking at new technologies. I feel like there’s a lot more work and innovation that can be done.

What’s your favorite beach?

The local beaches. But I’m not much of a beach person. I like to play volleyball more than I like to swim.

Image: EPA

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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