Beachgoers may be on the lookout for sharks and jellyfish, but one danger lurking beneath the waves this summer originated onshore — pathogens from human and farm animal waste. Over half of US beaches tested in 2022 harbored potentially unsafe levels of contamination, according to an analysis released today by the organizations Environment America Research & Policy Center and Frontier Group.
The study found that 1,761 out of 3,192 coastal and Great Lakes beaches tested across the country last year showed fecal contamination levels above an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) benchmark on at least one day that year. 363 of the beaches showed potentially unsafe levels on at least a quarter of the days they were tested. Much of the contamination comes from stormwater runoff in developed areas, outdated and deteriorating sewage systems, and factory farming, the authors write.
Swimming in water contaminated with fecal bacteria can cause gastrointestinal and respiratory illness, as well as infections, according to the EPA’s website.
“If it [had] just rained the day before, that might not be the day to go to the beach, particularly if there are local sewage treatment plants that discharge anywhere [nearby],” said John Rumpler, Clean Water Director at Environment America Research & Policy Center and an author of the report.
Rumpler also advised checking real-time water quality data that many communities use to alert beachgoers before traveling to a favorite vacation spot.
To evaluate beaches in US states and Puerto Rico for fecal contamination, the researchers downloaded bacteria testing data from the National Water Quality Monitoring Council’s Water Quality Portal in late May, reaching out to individual states for missing information. They considered beach sites “potentially unsafe” if concentrations of bacteria associated with poop exceeded the EPA’s Beach Action Value — the level of bacteria at which 32 out of 1,000 swimmers may get sick, according to the agency.
The study found that popular vacation spots were sometimes among those with high numbers of potentially unsafe days last year. The water quality at Myrtle Beach, South Carolina was found to be potentially unsafe on 82% of its 74 test days, while Santa Monica State Beach’s water dipped below safe levels on 58% of its 244 test days.
The percentage of beaches found to be potentially unsafe at least one day in 2022 varied between regions, from 24% of beaches in Alaska and Hawaii to 48% on the East Coast, 70% on the West Coast, 84% along the Gulf of Mexico and 63% along the Great Lakes.
One beach contamination culprit is the rise of sprawling development projects, including parking lots and roads, according to the report. Outdated and dysfunctional sewage systems are also to blame. The EPA estimates that sewage systems overflow as many as 75,000 times per year, while over 700 communities have outdated systems that combine stormwater and sewage and tend to spill waste during storms. Overabundant manure from “factory farms,” where throngs of livestock are confined in overcrowded spaces, also washes into waterways when it rains.
While Rumpler and colleagues have conducted the same analysis in past years, Rumpler noted that inconsistencies in how beaches are tested, and even which beaches are tested, make it difficult to compare data from one year to the next. But he said it appears the situation hasn’t improved since the last analysis using 2020 data — and climate change is likely to worsen the contamination beachgoers face in the future.
“I think it’s highly likely that climate change is going to make this challenge harder to address because climate change is bringing more severe storms,” said Rumpler. “When you have intense storms that happen very fast, those are exactly the conditions that lead to more sewage overflows and more stormwater runoff pollution.”
A path to cleaner beaches
To clean up US beaches, investing in water infrastructure repair is key, said Rumpler.
“We’re going to need to fix the conventional sewage systems and we’re going to have to invest in ‘green infrastructure’… projects that mimic or recreate nature’s ability to absorb stormwater,” he said.
Factory farms will need to be curtailed too, he said, adding that in addition to placing moratoriums on new or expanded operations, “we’ll need to actually walk back this out-of-control industrial animal industry that is producing volumes of manure that are completely unsustainable.”
Rumpler also pointed to the importance of preserving the wetlands and forests that naturally absorb stormwater. The Supreme Court recently ruled that up to half of US wetlands no longer fall under the protection of the Clean Water Act, the federal law that governs water pollution. Environmentalists fear the decision that may put these sensitive ecosystems at greater risk.
“That’s going to be a huge problem,” said Rumpler. “Maybe not for big urban areas that don’t have wetlands anymore anyway, but for smaller communities where wetlands are still playing a huge role in absorbing floodwater.”