What to Know About Beach Water Quality

Recent studies suggest that water at many U.S. beaches is full of feces and too dirty for safe swimming. Is that really true?

Photo: Greg Bulla/Unsplash

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If you’re about to grab your wetsuit and head out for an open-water swim, you might find the recent news about beach water quality unnerving.

A report by Environment America, an organization committed to ensuring clean water and air, suggests that half of the 3,100 beaches tested across the country in 2022 had at least one day where the fecal contamination exceeded safe levels as established by the Environmental Protection Agency. More than 300 of those beaches tested had unsafe levels of fecal contamination on at least 25 percent of the days on which testing took place.

The source of this pollution, according to the organization, is a trifecta of urban storm runoff, sewage overflows, and factory farms. 

Then, a July 10th article in the Boston Globe noted that 53 beaches in Massachusetts have been closed to swimming, including popular parts of Cape Cod, due to water quality issues with bacteria and algae.

I find this news incredibly sad and disturbing. Swimming in polluted water can lead to a variety of illnesses, from gastrointestinal issues to eye and ear infections to skin rashes, and every year millions of people get sick from it.

Rain hits rooftops, streets, lawns…and it picks up pollutants like microplastics and pet waste, and the extra rainwater overwhelms sewage and septic systems, which then discharge fecal matter.

I’ve known that the ocean around San Diego and Los Angeles can have dangerous levels of sewage runoff after big rains. I spent a year living and surfing the beaches there and always waited at least three days for the pollution to dissipate after a storm.

But I didn’t think that so many beaches in other parts of the country had dangerous levels of bacteria. Meanwhile it’s summer, and we all want to go jump in the water.

Southern California has long struggled with sewage issues in beach water
Southern California has struggled with sewage runoff at some if its beaches (Photo: peeterv/Getty)

So I talked to the Surfrider Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to the health of our oceans, which produces an annual water quality report for U.S. beaches and key water sources, to find out the honest status of our favorite summer playgrounds. Should we be worried about swimming at our favorite beach this summer? 

“These reports can be alarming, but swimmers should take a close look at the specific data,” says Michelle Parker Ortiz, who runs the Blue Water Task Force, the Surfrider Foundation’s volunteer-staffed water monitoring program that tests at 496 sites across the country, complimenting state agency water testing programs. “It’s hard to test at every single beach, so when you see a report with a bold claim, you need to look at the number of sites and frequency of testing.” 

The Surfrider Foundation’s most recent report suggests that 20 percent of their samples came back with high bacteria levels. And Surfrider isn’t just testing beaches; they’re testing storm drains, river mouths, and streams, all of which are sources of pollution into our oceans. In fact, according to Parker Ortiz, water at the beach tends to be cleaner than water at the source, since it’s been dissipated by millions of gallons of ocean water. 

According to Surfrider’s report, sewage discharge and animal agriculture are causes of beach pollution, especially when it comes to fecal bacteria. But the number one source of water pollution, swimming advisories, and beach closures in this country is caused by stormwater runoff. 

“Rain hits rooftops, streets, parking lots, lawns…and it picks up pollutants like microplastics, fertilizers and pet waste, and the extra rainwater overwhelms sewage and septic systems which then discharge fecal matter,” Parker Ortiz says, adding that you can’t really clean bacteria out of the water once that beach has been polluted. You have to address the issue at the source. 

“It’s tricky because the solution to stormwater runoff is different for every location,” Parker Ortiz says. “L.A.’s problem is an abundance of impervious surfaces [concrete], but in Florida it could be agricultural waste. So each location needs to be addressed specifically.” 

Parker Ortiz says there are things that you can do at home to help improve water quality near you, like limiting fertilizer use during rainy seasons and picking up after your pet. Domestic pet waste is actually a surprisingly large cause of fecal matter in our water systems, especially in large cities.

As for what you can do to stay safe while hitting the beach this summer, that’s simple: the Surfrider Foundation operates a website that offers real time water quality reports for beaches across the country. The Swim Guide, a nonprofit that publishes water quality reports in North America, Europe, Australia, Mexico, and the Bahamas, is a similar resource that has information for more than 8,000 sites, from beaches to rivers.

“I’ll check data before I get into any beach,” Parker Ortiz says. “If it’s a high hit, I’ll pick a different beach to go to. We’ve had staff members that have gotten sick before, it’s not pretty. I will do everything I can do to avoid that.”

Correspondent Graham Averill writes Outside’s national parks column. He’s a beach lover and an avid surfer who has a hard time deciding if he’d rather be in the water or on a mountain. He most recently wrote about the 10 Most Beautiful Beaches in National Parks.

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