State Summary: Massachusetts

Ranked 9th in Beachwater Quality (out of 30 states)
4% of samples exceeded national standards for designated beach areas in 2012

Protecting swimmers from bacteria, viruses, and other contaminants in beachwater requires leadership. Federal officials must help clean up polluted stormwater runoff—the most commonly identified cause of beach closings and swimming advisories—by developing national rules that require pollution sources to prevent stormwater where it starts by retaining it on-site.

The Environmental Protection Agency must also set beachwater quality standards protective of human health and provide states with the support they need to monitor beach pollution and notify the public when pollution levels are high.

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Massachusetts 2012 Beachwater Quality Summary

Reported Sources of Beachwater Contamination
(number of closing/advisory days)

  • 863 (100%) unknown contamination sources

Massachusetts has more than 500 public and semipublic marine beaches along 204 miles of sandy shore that line Atlantic waters. The monitoring program is a collaborative effort between local boards of health and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (MDPH) and is administered by MDPH.

What Are the Water Quality Challenges and Improvements in Massachusetts?

No-Discharge Zones

No-discharge zones, designated by the U.S. EPA, prohibit boats from discharging both treated and untreated sewage, which can contaminate beachwater. Within no-discharge zone boundaries, boat operators are required to retain their sewage onboard for disposal at sea (beyond 3 miles from shore) or onshore at a pump-out facility.

In June 2012, the coastal waters of Mount Hope Bay (near the communities of Dighton, Berkley, Freetown, Somerset, Swansea, and Fall River) were designated a no-discharge zone, along with the state waters south of Cape Cod and surrounding Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard (off the coast of Chilmark, West Tisbury, Tisbury, Oak Bluffs, Edgartown, Gosnold, Falmouth, Mashpee, Barnstable, Yarmouth, Dennis, Harwich, Chatham, and Nantucket). With the addition of these waters, more than 95% of Massachusetts’s coastal waters are now no-discharge zones.

Reducing Combined Sewer Overflows

Many urban areas along the coast of Massachusetts are served by combined sewer systems that treat both stormwater runoff and sewage before discharging it to surface waters. These systems can be overwhelmed by the volume of stormwater and sewage they receive during heavy storms, resulting in discharges of raw or partially treated sewage. The Massachusetts Water Resources Authority North Dorchester Bay CSO Storage Tunnel, a 17-foot-diameter combined-sewer overflow tunnel in South Boston, began operating on June 1, 2011. In addition to holding combined sewer overflows for later treatment, this tunnel stores stormwater flows during all but the largest rainstorms and pumps both stormwater and combined sewer overflow for treatment as capacity allows, thus preventing a large source of bacteria from reaching the beaches of South Boston.

What Does Beachwater Monitoring Show?1

In 2012, Massachusetts reported 644 coastal beaches, of which 18 (3%) were assigned a monitoring frequency of daily, 470 (73%) once a week, 21 (3%) every other week, 91 (14%) once a month, and 1 (<1%) less than once a month; 43 (7%) were not assigned a monitoring frequency.2 In 2012, 4% of all reported beach monitoring samples exceeded the state’s daily maximum bacterial standard of 104 colonies/100 ml. The beaches with the highest percent exceedance rates of the daily maximum standard in 2012 were Cockle Cove Creek–Parking Lot (69%) and Cockle Cove Creek–Ridgevale (54%) in Barnstable County, Pierce in Bristol County (42%), Donovan’s in Suffolk County (36%); Pond at Lucy Vincent Beach in Dukes County (33%), and Smith Beach in Norfolk County (31%). Nantucket County had the highest exceedance rate of the daily maximum standard in 2012 (10%), followed by Norfolk (9%), Essex (6%), Suffolk (5%), Dukes (4%), Bristol (4%), Plymouth (3%), and Barnstable (3%). NRDC considers all reported samples individually (without averaging) when calculating the percent exceedance rates in this analysis. This includes duplicate samples and samples taken outside the official beach season, if any.

Note that some beaches have a sampling variance. Under Massachusetts regulations, a variance allows for less-frequent sampling at beaches that have no potential sources of contamination and that have gone two years without an exceedance. The exceedance rate may be higher in counties with beaches under a variance, in part because the cleanest beaches in the county are not sampled as frequently as other beaches.

Massachusetts Percent of Samples Exceeding the State's Daily Maximum Bacterial Standard for 546 Beaches Reported 2008-2012*

    * Please note that only samples from a common set of beaches monitored each year from 2008-2012 are included in the bar chart.

    What Are Massachusetts's Sampling Practices?

    The monitoring season starts as early as Memorial Day at some beaches and lasts through Labor Day for most.

    The MDPH coordinates the efforts of a range of collaborators including local boards of health, the Barnstable County Department of Health and the Environment, and the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation. The MDPH determines sampling practices, locations, standards, and notification protocols and practices throughout the state. Samples are collected in 3 feet of water, 1 foot below the surface. State water quality regulations require that all public and semipublic freshwater and marine bathing beaches in Massachusetts be monitored during the bathing season for bacterial contamination. (Semipublic beaches are not open to the general public, but more than a single owner is allowed use.) The sampling frequency for Massachusetts’s beaches is based on use and the potential for pollution problems. As noted above, if a beach has been monitored weekly for the two most recent consecutive years and no exceedance of standards has been found, and if a sanitary survey conducted by a registered sanitarian reveals no potential sources of pollution at that beach, the beach managing entity may be allowed to sample less frequently.

    Beachwater quality samples must be taken in the areas where there are the most swimmers. However, beach operators are encouraged also to sample where outfalls and other sources of contamination are present. When an exceedance is found, sampling is generally conducted every day until the standards are met, after which the beach is reopened. Also, beaches that issue preemptive rainfall advisories generally sample on the day of rainfall or the day after. States that monitor more frequently after an exceedance is found or after rainfall will tend to have higher percent exceedance rates and lower total closing/advisory days than they would if their sampling frequency did not increase after an exceedance or a rain event.

    How Many Beach Closings and Advisories Were Issued in 2012?3

    Total closing/advisory days for 323 events lasting six consecutive weeks or less decreased 32% to 863 days in 2012 from 1,273 days in 2011. For prior years, there were 1,256 days in 2010, 1,478 days in 2009, and 1,102 days in 2008. In addition, there were 2 extended events (156 days total) and no permanent events in 2012. Extended events are those in effect more than six weeks but not more than 13 consecutive weeks; permanent events are in effect for more than 13 consecutive weeks. For the 323 events lasting six consecutive weeks or less, 80% (690) of closing/advisory days were due to monitoring that revealed elevated bacteria levels, 16% (139) were preemptive due to heavy rainfall, and 4% (34) were preemptive due to other reasons.

    How Does Massachusetts Determine When to Warn Visitors About Swimming?

    Beaches are closed to swimming when the single-sample maximum or the geometric mean standard is exceeded. Whether beach action days are reported to the EPA as closings or advisories, restrictions and notifications are the same. For marine beaches, the standard is a single-sample enterococcus maximum of 104 cfu/100 ml, or the geometric mean of the five most recent samples within the current bathing season of 35 cfu/100 ml. There is no requirement that the geometric mean be calculated on the basis of samples taken over a 30-day period.

    In addition to fecal indicator bacteria monitoring, beaches must be tested for oil, hazardous materials, and heavy metals if there is information indicating possible contamination.

    Preemptive rainfall standards are in use at several beaches on Boston Harbor, and preemptive rainfall closings are issued after any significant rainstorm at a bathing beach with a history of violations of water quality standards. In addition to preemptive rainfall closings and closings due to bacterial exceedances, the local board of health and/or MDPH can close a beach for any other reason if they believe there is a threat to human health, such as an oil spill. Beaches also can be closed if there is a red tide (a bloom of the harmful algal bacterium Alexandrium) that decreases visibility in the water to such an extent that the beach operator considers it a rescue safety hazard. Local boards of health can also preemptively close beaches that have consistently elevated bacterial indicator levels.

    Massachusetts 2012 Monitoring Results and Closing/Advisory Days4

    Assigned Monitoring Frequency
    Total Samples
    % of samples exceeding
    state standards
    Closing or Advisory days
      NOTE: Data and state-specific information for this summary were collected from U.S. EPA, direct conversations with beach managers in the state, state grant reports to U.S. EPA for BEACH Act funding, and the state water quality website. The information in this state summary reflects current data as of June 7, 2013.
    1. If the 2012 percent exceedance values in this summary don't match, why not? The value at the top of the page reflects the proportion of samples exceeding the national single-sample maximum standard for designated beach areas. The values in the "What Does Beach Monitoring Show?" section reflect the proportion of samples exceeding the state standard, which in some states is more or less stringent than the national designated beach standard. Additionally, only samples from a common set of beaches monitored each year from 2008-2012 are included in the bar chart. Because some beaches were not monitored in each of those years, the percent exceedance for this subset of beaches may not have the same value as the percent exceedance for all of the beaches monitored in 2012.
    2. Per conversations with the Massachusetts Department of Health, NRDC learned that several beaches are no longer monitored by towns due to budgetary reasons, staffing issues, low usage, or lack of access (more common for beaches on Cape Cod and the state’s islands, where storm damage can change the shoreline). Additionally, some beaches with multiple sampling points have had the number of locations reduced, and some locations near each other have been combined or are using surrogates.
    3. Year-to-year changes in closing/advisory days should not necessarily be interpreted as an indication of the level of bacterial contamination. In some states and localities, the number of beaches and/or beach monitoring frequency may not be consistent from one year to the next, and beaches may be closed or under a swimming advisory for reasons other than known or suspected bacterial contamination. Other reasons include, but are not limited to, chemical/oil spills, medical waste washing up on shore, dangerous currents, lack of lifeguards, etc. In addition, because NRDC's totals of closing/advisory events focus on those events lasting six consecutive weeks or less, those tallies do not account for longer-duration closings or advisories. For trends in water quality, please refer to NRDC's year-to-year comparison of percent exceedance rates of state water quality standards.
    4. Reported closing or advisory days are for events lasting six consecutive weeks or less. Days in parentheses are for events lasting more than six consecutive weeks.


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