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Water quality at America's beaches

  • Water quality at America’s beaches

    A day at the beach usually means sun, fun, and surf. Unfortunately, it can also mean pollution, contamination, and unsafe swimming conditions, especially in the summer months when the warmer water creates the perfect environment for bacteria to grow and thrive. Waterborne illnesses affect millions of people each year, and it is often the result of fecal contamination in beach waters.

    Sewage runoff from storms, improper dumping, and over-development of coastal regions all contribute to these pollutants in this country’s waters, as well as factory farms and deteriorating sewer systems in some regions. Climate change is also a factor, with warmer, wet weather; flooding; and heavy rains creating more runoff into the oceans, bays, and lakes.

    Environment America Research & Policy Center, a non-profit dedicated to the conservation and protection of water, air, and natural resources, partnered with the Frontier Group to compile and share data on the condition of America’s beach waters. Its 2020 “Safe for Swimming?” report shows the results of samples taken from more than 3,000 U.S. beaches during a 2019 testing period. Of those beaches tested, 386 of them were determined to be unsafe at least 25% of the days their water was sampled.

    Stacker consulted Environment America’s report to create a concise picture of the water quality at America’s beaches. Although the report contains a large data sample size, the data presented is not necessarily comparable between states or beaches due to a wide variety of sampling techniques and reporting practices. For example, some beaches may be subject to additional testing as a result of natural weather or pollution events, Some beaches may not be monitored also. Data was collected in 2019, and released in 2020.

    Take a look at just how safe America’s beaches are for swimming and read about some of the solutions being implemented by various states.

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  • Alabama

    - Proportion of beaches with at least one potentially unsafe day in 2019: 60% (15 out of a total 25 beaches tested)
    - Beach sites with many potentially unsafe days:
    --- Fairhope Public Beach: 12 out of 56 days tested (21.4%)
    --- May Day Park: 7 out of 31 days tested (22.6%)
    --- Dog River, Alba Club: 7 out of 33 days tested (21.2%)

    Of the 25 Alabama beaches tested, 60% were found to be potentially unsafe. The beach that had the highest number of unsafe test days was Fairhope Public beach, which is located on the shores of Mobile Bay. Sewage overflows during storms and heavy rains can sometimes flood the waterways that feed into the bay, leading to contamination. The Coastal Alabama Beach Monitoring Program regularly tests the major recreational beaches, monitoring water quality and issuing advisories or closures as needed.

  • California

    - Proportion of beaches with at least one potentially unsafe day in 2019: 79.8% (202 out of a total 253 beaches tested)
    - Beach sites with many potentially unsafe days:
    --- Inner Cabrillo Beach: 150 out of 258 days tested (58.1%)
    --- Marina Del Rey Beach/Mothers Beach: 111 out of 299 days tested (37.1%)
    --- Topanga State Beach: 101 out of 257 days tested (39.3%)

    More than 60% of California's 420-plus beaches were tested for this study; roughly 80% of those had potentially unsafe water on at least one day during the testing period. Topping the list was Los Angeles County’s Inner Cabrillo Beach, among the worst beaches in the country for pollution that has been found to have high levels of sewage overflow and has been cited for its issues for more than a decade.

  • Connecticut

    - Proportion of beaches with at least one potentially unsafe day in 2019: 62.9% (44 out of a total 70 beaches tested)
    - Beach sites with many potentially unsafe days:
    --- Shady Beach: 10 out of 22 days tested (45.5%)
    --- Byram Beach: 8 out of 19 days tested (42.1%)
    --- Calf Pasture Beach: 8 out of 21 days tested (38.1%)

    Connecticut's beaches show an average percentage of unsafe days at 16% during the testing period. The Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection has developed a program to monitor and reduce various sources of beach pollution, which includes domestic animal and wildlife waste, soil erosion, boating activity, and faulty septic systems. 

  • Delaware

    - Proportion of beaches with at least one potentially unsafe day in 2019: 60.9% (14 out of a total 23 beaches tested)
    - Beach sites with many potentially unsafe days:
    --- Slaughter Beach: 12 out of 19 days tested (63.2%)
    --- Broadkill Beach: 5 out of 18 days tested (27.8%)
    --- Dewey Beach-Swedes: 4 out of 17 days tested (23.5%)

    Delaware's Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control tests the state's beach waters regularly during swimming season, Scientists from that organization issued a public advisory after a large number of shorebirds invaded Slaughter Beach, defecating into the waters and along the shorelines, which caused high levels of bacteria. 

  • Florida

    - Proportion of beaches with at least one potentially unsafe day in 2019: 71.5% (187 out of a total 261 beaches tested)
    - Beach sites with many potentially unsafe days:
    --- South Beach (Key West): 22 out of 43 days tested (51.2%)
    --- Robert J. Strickland Beach: 19 out of 26 days tested (73.1%)
    --- Crandon Park—South: 19 out of 67 days tested (28.4%)

    More than 71% of Florida's tested beach waters had some level of fecal bacteria during the sampling time frames. Concerns over poor water quality led some Florida cities to utilize the Clean Water State Revolving fund, which provides low-cost financing for water infrastructure.

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  • Georgia

    - Proportion of beaches with at least one potentially unsafe day in 2019: 73.1% (19 out of a total 26 beaches tested)
    - Beach sites with many potentially unsafe days:
    --- St. Simons Island Lighthouse Beach: 9 out of 47 days tested (19.1%)
    --- 5th St. Crossover (St. Simons Island): 8 out of 46 days tested (17.4%)
    --- Tybee Island Strand: 6 out of 45 days tested (13.3%)

    The state tests the bacteria levels at Georgia’s beaches year-round, as opposed to just during the warmer months, issuing advisories to the public when bacteria reach unsafe levels. Some beaches have been placed under permanent advisories due to having continuously high levels of contamination.  

  • Hawaii

    - Proportion of beaches with at least one potentially unsafe day in 2019: 34.4% (76 out of a total 221 beaches tested)
    - Beach sites with many potentially unsafe days:
    --- Kuliouou Beach: 10 out of 11 days tested (90.9%)
    --- Hanalei Beach Co. Park: 9 out of 59 days tested (15.3%)
    --- Niu Beach: 8 out of 10 days tested (80%)

    Honolulu County, which has the largest population of all the islands, is home to Kuliouou Beach, which indicated possible contamination for 91% of the days sampling took place. The State of Hawaii’s Clean Water Branch has worked to reduce water contamination, analyzing water quality on a regular basis, and working to increase community-based education on watershed management, as well as providing funding for projects relating to contamination control. 

  • Illinois

    - Proportion of beaches with at least one potentially unsafe day in 2019: 100% (19 out of a total 19 beaches tested)
    - Beach sites with many potentially unsafe days:
    --- 63rd Street Beach: 19 out of 101 days tested (18.8%)
    --- Calumet South Beach: 18 out of 102 days tested (17.6%)
    --- South Shore Beach: 17 out of 101 days tested (16.8%)

    Illinois’ beaches, located on the shores of Lake Michigan, showed possible contamination and unsafe swimming conditions for at least one day during the sampling period for all 19 of the beaches that were tested. Ongoing issues with sewage overflow discharge into the lake, as well as other environmental concerns, have led to the introduction of legislation to prevent the dumping of sewage into the Great Lakes. 

     

  • Indiana

    - Proportion of beaches with at least one potentially unsafe day in 2019: 82.6% (19 out of a total 23 beaches tested)
    - Beach sites with many potentially unsafe days:
    --- Jeorse Park Beach I: 28 out of 94 days tested (29.8%)
    --- Jeorse Park Beach II: 20 out of 94 days tested (21.3%)
    --- Whihala Beach West: 17 out of 93 days tested (18.3%)

    The Indiana Department of Environmental Management began beach monitoring in 2002. The state's Lake Michigan Beach Monitoring and Notification Program works with local beach managers to test Indiana beaches regularly and notify the public of contamination.

  • Louisiana

    - Proportion of beaches with at least one potentially unsafe day in 2019: 100% (23 out of a total 23 beaches tested)
    - Beach sites with many potentially unsafe days:
    --- Lake Charles North Beach: 20 out of 30 days tested (66.7%)
    --- Fontainebleau State Park: 19 out of 29 days tested (65.5%)
    --- Rutherford Beach: 13 out of 30 days tested (43.3%)

    The Louisiana Department of Health maintains an ongoing Beach Monitoring Program, testing water at various beaches in order to determine if water quality meets the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) guidelines. The tests are performed from April to October when warmer water temperatures can mean an increase in bacteria.

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