Guide to Finding a Clean Beach

How to Find Out if a Beach is Tested for Pollution—and What Authorities Do If They Find It

Wondering how clean the water is at your favorite beach? Finding an answer can be tricky, because there is no national protocol for communicating with the public about the risks from unsafe swimming water. Beach testing and closing/health advisory practices vary beach by beach and state by state. Some localities regularly test the water quality at their beaches, but others do not. Even when states and local authorities do perform tests, they don’t always notify the public or close beaches when bacteria levels in the water exceed health standards.

Finding Help Online

Here’s how to investigate the safety of your favorite beach before heading out for a swim:

Start by checking Testing the Waters 2014. This NRDC report will give you the details on beach water monitoring results for coastal and Great Lakes beaches in 2013.

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Photo: Jake Rome

The Environmental Protection Agency's Beaches website is full of useful information, as is its interactive database of water quality testing, beach closures, and advisories. The agency's beach Do’s and Don'ts also offers tips about how you can help to improve water quality at the beach.

Finding Help at the Local or State Health Department

In most cases, staff members at your town or county health department will be able to answer your questions about local beach water monitoring. You also can contact your state’s health department or environmental protection agency. The information for EPA regional beach contacts and state, tribe, and territory beach contacts can be found here.

When you contact local or state health officials, ask:

  • What are the sources of pollution affecting the waters where I swim, and what is being done to make sure they’re clean?
  • Do you perform water quality monitoring for swimmer safety at these beaches? If so, how often?
  • Do you always close beaches or notify the public when testing shows that bacteria levels are worse than the health-protective Beach Action Value identified by the EPA?
  • What is the current status of these waters (are they closed or open?), and what warning signs should I look for that might indicate there are water pollution problems?

Avoiding Polluted Beaches

In some cases, beach water quality test results may be announced on local radio and TV, printed in the newspaper, or posted online. Most states have information about beach closings and swimming advisories available on a website. Below is a list of such states; click on one to visit its site. Also be on the lookout for posted signs at the beach before you swim.

Whenever possible, swim at beaches that your research shows have the cleanest water, are carefully monitored, and have strict closure and advisory procedures. If your beach is not monitored regularly, there are some things you can do to avoid swimming in polluted water:

  • If possible, choose beaches that are on open waters and away from urban areas. They frequently have cleaner water than beaches in developed areas or in enclosed bays and harbors with little water circulation.
  • Look for pipes along the beach that drain stormwater runoff from the streets, and don't swim near them. Avoid swimming in beach water that is cloudy or smells bad.
  • Keep your head out of the water.
  • Avoid swimming for at least 24 hours after it rains and 72 hours after heavy rains.
  • Contact local health officials if you suspect beach water contamination so that others can be protected from exposure.

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