New Standards for Beach Water Quality, but Will They Protect You?

Ian_swanson_beachPhoto: Ian Swanson

Beach hazards abound. Your surfboard can knock you out. Corals might scrape your face off. A shark could mistake you for a seal or, more likely, you might bump into a jellyfish. Those are risks most of us willingly accept. But when you leave the beach vomiting, or with diarrhea or a fever due to fecal matter in the water, that's just not cool.

On Monday, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalized its standards for recommended recreational water quality criteria—basically, the levels of water pollutants (like fecal-linked enterococcus in coastal waters and E. coli for the Great Lakes) above which it thinks states or municipalities ought to close public beaches due to hazards to public health. But the new recommendations are weak, says the Natural Resources Defense Fund (NRDC) as well as the Surfrider Foundation, because they are voluntary and offer multiple levels of standards.

The two main recommendations are set to levels of the bacterial pollutants, based on water samples, that could make 32-36 out of 1,000 beachgoers ill. But the EPA offered two even stricter (much stricter) water quality level alerts, called Beach Action Values, and is giving municipalities real incentives to opt for those—aside from a wish to better protect human health.

But, incentives or no, municipalities generally push to keep beaches open as long as possible to ensure a steady stream of beachgoers and a strong local economy (remember Jaws?), says Mara Dias, water quality manager for the Surfrider Foundation. "I find it hard to envision a circumstance where a state would use the most restrictive [level]," she says.

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