Environmental Protection

Beach Water Quality Safety Gets a Makeover

The EPA has made a move to help protect the health of millions of beachgoers, while also requiring the states to strengthen their beach water quality notification practices.

In a move to protect more than 180 million people who visit America’s coastal and Great Lakes beaches every year, the EPA has announced stronger National Beach Guidance for all states to adopt the most protective swimmer safety threshold – a Beach Action Value (BAV) – for water quality monitoring and notification practices in order to receive federal BEACH Act funding.

The new implementation of EPA’s strongest safe-to-swim threshold, which EPA expects to be implemented by grantee states to be eligible for FY 16 funding, is consistent with recommendations urged by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and its coalition partners Clean Ocean Action, Hackensack Riverkeeper, Heal the Bay, NY/NJ Baykeeper, Riverkeeper and Waterkeeper Alliance.

 “By protecting swimmers from unsafe levels of disease-causing bacteria and viruses, today’s sensible decision by EPA will help keep trips to the beach as safe as they should be,” said Steve Fleischli, senior attorney and water program director for the NRDC. “Clean beach water is not only critical for public health, it supports healthy coastal economies that generate billions of dollars and support millions of American jobs. We trust EPA will hold states to the highest, most health protective standards to safeguard all swimmers.”

 “Use of the most protective BAV is critical for public health, and we urge all states to adopt its use,” said Kelly Hunter Foster, senior attorney for Waterkeeper Alliance. “Unfortunately, EPA reports that nearly 43 percent of coastal beaches and 71 percent of streams and rivers are not monitored for disease-causing pathogens that endanger the health of people that swim and fish in our nation’s waters.  Because pathogens are the leading cause of water pollution in the U.S., it is imperative that EPA and states take action to address the pollution sources, adopt protective criteria and action values for all waters and expand monitoring and public notification programs.”

The EPA will require states that participate in the BEACH grant program to adopt the more protective BAV for beach notification actions, unless states submit to EPA a written justification for an alternative based in science, local water quality data, or monitoring experience. According to NRDC’s recent 2014 Testing the Waters report, ten percent of water quality samples collected from nearly 3,500 American beaches failed EPA’s BAV. States are responsible for monitoring water quality at our nation’s beaches.

In its 2012 Recreational Water Quality Criteria, EPA identified the BAV as an optional and precautionary “do-not-exceed” beach water quality threshold that offers greater public health protection than EPA’s current water quality criteria for states. States’ use of the BAV as “enhanced protection of recreational waters” has been voluntary, and most local beach managers and state officials responsible for beach policies have not relied on it to provide important safety information to the public. Now, with the integration of the BAV into the national BEACH grant program, grantee states will be expected to protect the public with this greater level of protection.

In addition to states using EPA’s new BAV, all states should adopt rapid testing and monitoring of beach water quality to offer swimmers more immediate health protections when contamination is detected. But many beaches are still not monitored regularly, in part because the BEACH Act has never been fully funded by Congress. More federal support for the BEACH Act can greatly influence the scope of the program and the methods used to protect beachgoers from dangerous bacteria and viruses.

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