Are You Heading to the Beach?

Bellingham Bay, WA | © Stacey Detwiler

Bellingham Bay, WA | © Stacey Detwiler

Are you heading to the beach this summer? Take a look at the Natural Resources Defense Council’s (NRDC) latest report, Testing the Waters, before you head out. Every year, NRDC uses water quality and beach closure data to compile information about bacteria levels at popular swimming beaches around the country. Their interactive map helps you to assess how and why beaches are closed. Yet again, polluted runoff tops the list across the country as a primary reason that beaches are unsafe for swimming.

In about a week, I’m headed to a beach myself – a lake in western Washington. So I thought I’d take a look at the Washington state report. Washington ranks 8th out of 30 states assessed for beach water quality, although 96 percent of beaches either aren’t monitored or there are a limited number of samples. At monitored beaches, there were 11 days where beaches were closed due to polluted runoff. Although Washington doesn’t have any preemptive rainfall standards, it does advise avoiding contact with water for 48 hours after heavy rains.

This, unfortunately, is generally a good rule of thumb for many of our rivers, lakes, and bays that are threatened by polluted runoff. Rainwater flows over hard surfaces like parking lots and rooftops where it can pick up pollutants before flowing into nearby rivers and streams. In many older urban areas with combined sewer systems, excess runoff entering pipes can cause sewage overflows. The EPA estimates that up to 3.5 million people get sick from recreational contact with sewage in water every year.

The good news is that the EPA has the opportunity to update and modernize its programs to manage polluted runoff. By shifting towards incentivizing technologies like rain gardens and green roofs that capture and treat rainwater where it falls, the Agency can better protect clean water and clean beaches.  

However, until these updates are finalized, the problem of polluted runoff will just get worse. Already, polluted runoff is one of the leading sources of water pollution across the country. The bad news is that EPA is once again behind on this proposal. It’s well past time for EPA to finalize these updates and to protect clean water so that we can safely swim at our favorite beaches.