Before You Jump in: How to Know if Your Nearest Beach is Safe to Enjoy

Rising temperatures mean it’s time to grab your swimsuit, load up your surf board and hit the beach! Not so fast – has there been a recent rainstorm, a sewage leak or maybe a storm surge that washed up building and construction debris – or worse – in those tantalizing waters? Your local beach might look fine but might actually be a health hazard, so you might want to check its status before heading out.

How Clean and Safe are US Beaches?

Every summer, the EPA publishes statistics about beach closures and advisories at US beaches. This year’s report, EPA’s BEACH Report: 2012 Swimming Season was released in June. Every year, following the release of the EPA’s report, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) releases their annual beach report as well. Testing the Waters 2013 : A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches  is NRDC’s take on the data presented in the EPA report. It turns out, the status of US beaches as a whole is either good or bad, depending on how each report interprets the data.

In 2012, 3,762 coastal beaches were monitored by various entities and, according to the EPA report, 40 percent had at least one advisory or closure (3 percent fewer than 2011). From the report: “Beach advisories and closings can result from a number of sources: overflows from sewer systems, either by design or due to blockages; treatment plant malfunctions; stormwater runoff after rainfall; waste from boats; leaking septic systems; or pet and wildlife waste.” Last year, the largest contributor was stormwater runoff. The good news says EPA, is that “in 2012, the nation’s coastal and Great Lakes beaches were open 95 percent of the time during the swimming season.”

Share your perspective on swimmable water by joining 200 Waterkeepers and thousands of individuals from 20 countries for Swimmable Water Weekend July 26-28.

The NRDC uses EPA data to evaluate and rank the top 200 beaches in the US. Their analysis found that, for the third year in a row, water pollution – primarily from stormwater runoff – ruined over 20,000 days at US beaches. The bad news, according to NRDC, is “that our nation’s beaches continue to experience significant water pollution that puts swimmers and local economies at risk.”

The number of closings and advisories could go down next year, but not because our shorelines will be cleaner – the EPA recently relaxed water quality standards for marine (salt and brackish) and freshwater recreational waters. The presence of Enterococcus is an indicator of pathogens in water that the EPA uses to assess pollution in recreational waters. Previously, the EPA considered a count of 104 Enterococcus per 100 mL to be an unacceptable level in salt and brackish waters but the new marker is 110 per 100 mL, a relatively small change. On the other hand, freshwater changed quite a bit, from 61 to 110 per 100 mL, which means that freshwater beaches could get quite a bit dirtier before advisories or closings are issued.

Whichever report you read it’s clear that we can have a significant impact on our beaches. We contribute pollution to stormwater runoff by leaving our trash, pet waste and other pollutants on the ground. Everything eventually makes its way into the ocean, so being mindful of how you dispose of waste will go a long way toward helping our beaches stay clean and swimmable for everyone.

How to Know if Your Nearest Beach is Closed

Even if you love the beach, you might want to think twice before you dive in.

To find out how safe your beach is before you go in the water check out any of these resources:

Waterkeeper Alliance has made it much easier to find out what your beach’s water quality is with the launch of their Swim Guide, a new, free, smartphone app. Now, beachgoers, swimmers and surfers across the US and Canada can find the perfect beach.

The EPA created the BEach Advisory and Closing Online Notification (BEACON) system to provide a public database of pollution occurrences for coastal recreation waters. BEACON contains state-reported beach monitoring and notification data.

NRDC’s report presents information on water quality, beach closings and swimming advisories at more than 3,000 US beaches along the shores of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, the Gulf of Mexico and the Great Lakes. In addition, they’ve rated 200 of the nation's popular beaches, based on their water quality, monitoring and notification practices. You can also explore an interactive map to learn about beaches in your community.

Find out more about sources of beach pollution in your area and what you can do to help.

Ecocentric Reflections on Beach Closures (and Lackthereof)

I asked my coworkers about their own experiences with beach closings. Here’s what they had to say:

Kyle: One of the nice things about living on Long Island is the spectacular beaches. They are a draw for all beachgoers including kayakers, naturalists, fisher people and birders, just to name a few. But beach closures have become all too familiar; I’m sure this is frustrating to Long Islanders and tourists alike.

Taking our kids to the beach is always a good time for all, and we don’t get to go that often, so it’s a treat when we do get to a small beach not far from where we live. One of the benefits of going to this beach is the great view; so much of Long Island’s coastline is inaccessible to the public. Had we gone on one particular beautiful weekend in mid-June, we would have been greeted by a beach closure. That weekend, two dozen beaches across the island were closed as a precaution following heavy rains that can elevate bacteria levels in the water.

The degraded water quality underlying beach closures is a threat to public health and is also bad for business and the local ecosystem. In 2012, Long Island experienced 350 and 578 closing and advisory days in Nassau County and Suffolk County, respectively.

Dawn: A couple of years ago, when a few NYC beaches were closed because of a sewage spill in the Hudson River, against the advice of my friends… I still went swimming at Coney Island! I wasn’t the only one who thought that it was ok – Coney Island was technically still open, even though one of the beaches that was closed was just down the way at Sea Gate Beach. 

Kai: Beach closure…what about beach opening in Ortley Beach, New Jersey? The Jersey Shore town that my family frequents every summer because my in-laws have a house there was one of the worst hit locations by Superstorm Sandy and it remains a place that is still generally devastated. Due to the debris and “god knows what” submerged or floating near the shorelines of both the bay and ocean, most of the town’s beaches are closed. With climate change bringing the greater likelihood of more intense weather events like Sandy, the probability of a long-term beach closure in the aftermath of a mega-storm might become more common.

Check out a slideshow about Ortley Beach -- Coming Back: Fourth Avenue, Ortley Beach, N.J.

Peter: In the innocent time before the EPA required beach water quality sampling, I spent countless youthful summer days playing in the scaled-down rivers flowing from storm drain outfalls onto my favorite beach. The mission: to dam that stream with sand, rocks and seashells. It was an endlessly fascinating and challenging way to kill a hot day. And man, how that water flowed after a big rain storm! Little did I know, wrapped up in the quest to conquer my tiny slice of nature, that I was playing in a stream of oil, trash, dog sh*t and other gross stuff washed off of nearby streets. How could any of us know, really? The water looked clean, didn’t smell that bad and no one told us to stay out. So when I think of beach closures, I think back to all those closures that could have, should have been. (And of the awesome dams I made.)

Robin: When I was little we lived across the street from the beach in Ewa Beach, Hawaii. From what I remember, I went in the water just about every day, regardless of whether or not there had been a storm. I’m pretty sure there were some bad water quality days but we didn’t really know about that stuff back then. I’m going back to that beach this summer and I’ll probably swim in it, even if there is an advisory, even if I know better because, you know, I’ll be in Hawaii and I’m going in the water!