Testing the Waters

A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches

2012 Report Findings:

Our nation's beaches continue to experience significant water pollution that hurts local economies and puts the health of beachgoers and swimmers at risk.

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Taking Action to Protect Swimmers From Beach Pollution

To improve beachwater quality nationwide, our leaders need to adopt policies that clean up the sources of beach pollution. There are numerous things that federal, state, and local officials can do to rein in the sources of beach contamination and to improve beachwater monitoring and public information. For example, the federal government can and should increase its contribution to the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, which provides critical assistance for projects that repair and rebuild failing water and wastewater infrastructure. However, there are two national actions that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is undertaking that would have the most significant impact on efforts to make beaches cleaner and safer for swimming.

EPA is working on a pair of initiatives—one establishing recommended standards for beach officials to use to keep people from being exposed to unsafe levels of disease-causing bacteria and viruses, and one that will curb a principal source of contaminants flowing to the nation's waters and polluting our beaches. The agency will finalize its recreational water safety standards in October and will propose revisions to the national requirements for sources of polluted runoff in the next year.

Improving Public Health Protections Through Recreational Water Quality Criteria

EPA is the government agency responsible for ensuring that recreational waters are safe. Unfortunately, it is proposing new allowable bacteria levels—called "criteria" in the Clean Water Act—in recreational waters that miss a critical opportunity to better protect the public from the dangers of swimming in polluted water. In fact, in some respects the draft criteria are even less protective than the 25-year-old guidelines they would replace. Sound science and good public policy demand better recreational water quality criteria than what EPA is proposing to finalize before October 15, 2012.

Risk of Swimming in Polluted Waters

Illnesses associated with swimming or otherwise recreating in polluted water include conditions such as gastrointestinal upset, skin rashes, conjunctivitis, upper respiratory tract infections, meningitis, and hepatitis. Children are especially vulnerable, in part because they tend to submerge their heads more often than adults and are more likely to swallow water in large volumes when swimming. The most common health complaint is gastrointestinal illness, which typically involves symptoms such as vomiting, fever, stomach pain and diarrhea.

Recreational water quality criteria to protect public health have not been updated since 1986. In 2000, Congress approved the Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act (BEACH Act), requiring EPA to modernize standards for water quality that would protect beach users from illnesses caused by pathogens, such as viruses and bacteria.1 The criteria are to be based on, among other things, the results of recent public health studies required by the BEACH Act.2 The revisions offer an important opportunity to improve beachwater quality and to ensure public health protection after more than two decades. They may not be revisited again until years from now, so it is extremely important for EPA to develop standards that are protective of public health on a national level.

EPA released its proposed criteria in December 2011. Some proposals, such as recommending criteria for all recreational waterways (not just the most popular beaches), are steps in the right direction. However, most provisions are not sufficiently protective of public health. For example, the proposed criteria:

Pose unacceptable health risks: The EPA has determined that a gastrointestinal illness risk rate of 3.6 percent is acceptable. In other words, EPA believes it is acceptable for 1 in 28 swimmers to become ill with gastroenteritis from swimming in water that just meets the EPA's proposed water quality criteria. This risk is unacceptably high and is not protective of public health. Additionally, EPA does not adequately consider the risks of other health effects, such as rashes and ear, eye, and sinus infections, all of which are commonly contracted by swimmers at U.S. beaches.

Fail to include the latest science: EPA has not based the draft criteria on the most recent and best available science. Numerous high-quality studies, including some conducted at Santa Monica Bay beaches and Doheny Beach in Southern California,3 have not been used to help develop the new beach criteria.

Recommendations

In order to properly protect public health while utilizing the best available science, EPA must make the following modifications prior to issuance of its final criteria:

  1. Adequately protect public health. EPA should revise the level of acceptable risk so that it is protective of public health. A health risk of 1 in 28 is not protective. EPA is asking the wrong question in concluding that 1 in 28 is acceptable. The question is not whether the 1986 standards (and their associated risk of 1 in 28) are still justified—which is what EPA has tried to answer in developing the new criteria—but rather what level of contamination is protective of public health. To answer this question, the latest and best scientific evidence must be utilized to determine appropriate water contamination "cut points," above which the public is subject to statistically significant additional health risk, like 1 in 100. The criteria also must adequately address non-gastrointestinal illnesses, such as rash and ear infections.
  2. Address significant pollution sources. When health-based levels of pollution are exceeded, beaches are to be posted or closed to protect the public. However, EPA's draft criteria would allow polluters who may be causing contamination to avoid taking action unless more than 25 percent of the samples taken contain bacteria over acceptable limits. This means beaches could be polluted on 1 out of every 4 days sampled without any meaningful deterrent or cleanup. Instead, EPA should ensure that polluters take action to reduce beach pollution whenever the health-based levels that trigger beach posting or closure are exceeded.
  3. Use better averaging. In addition to using evidence of single-sample pollution exceedances to protect the public, most coastal and Great Lakes states consider a 30-day geometric mean (or weighted average) when determining whether to post or close a polluted beach. However, EPA proposes allowing the use of a seasonal geometric mean up to 90 days. This 90-day averaging period might fail to reveal short-term pollution problems, thereby putting people's health at risk. People rarely swim on an exactly average day, and pollution spikes can occur because of sewage spills or contaminated runoff after a rainstorm. A more protective approach would be a shorter, 30-day-rolling geometric mean, which would identify pollution problems on a timelier basis and would be more likely to result in cleanup.
  4. Require rapid testing methods. Rapid test methods provide timely public notification of water quality conditions to beachgoers. The quicker the test results, the better the protection. The BEACH Act requires EPA to analyze rapid test methods that could reduce the time delay in obtaining information about polluted beaches from the current 18 to 24 hours to fewer than 4 hours, thus providing increased public health protection. The EPA's proposal does not recommend that rapid methods be used by themselves; this means that duplicate, slower methods would also be required where rapid methods are used. The draft criteria also do not provide incentives for states to move forward with rapid methods, nor do the criteria push states to implement rapid methods by a certain date—even for the most contaminated and heavily used beaches in the country. Health-based rapid method criteria using the latest epidemiology data should be developed and required for use at popular beaches by 2015.
  5. Make protections uniform. Make protections uniform. The same standards should apply no matter where in the country one swims or what the local source of pollution is. Nonetheless, EPA's proposal allows for local studies of nonhuman sources of bacteria to help understand the relative risks to humans exposed to different sources of fecal contamination (e.g., human versus nonhuman) in recreational waters. To help ensure proper use of these studies, EPA should include uniform procedures and implementation guidelines for states interested in pursuing this approach. Moreover, eligibility for modification of criteria based on such studies must be clearly articulated and allowed only in limited circumstances, such as at remote beaches with no known human sources of fecal indicator bacteria or at beaches with infrequent use (e.g., less than 10,000 visitors per year). All urban beaches should be ineligible for modified criteria because these beaches receive pollution from a wide variety of complex and variable sources including sewage spills, combined sewer overflows (CSOs), populations without adequate available restrooms, and polluted runoff that contains animal waste, leaked sewage, food waste, and other pollutants. This makes studies focused on risks from nonhuman sources inherently unreliable in urban settings.

Clean Up Urban and Suburban Runoff Pollution and Sewage Overflows

In urban and suburban settings, rainwater picks up bacteria in pet and wildlife waste and garbage as it runs from roads, buildings, and other impervious surfaces into storm sewers. In 2011, polluted runoff and stormwater caused or contributed to 10,954 closing/advisory days at coastal and Great Lakes beaches, making it the largest known source of contamination. In addition, many cities around the country have combined sewer systems, meaning that sewage flushed from homes and businesses is carried by the same pipes that receive runoff when it rains. These systems—of which there are more than 700 nationwide—were constructed many decades ago and were designed to allow the mix of raw sewage and runoff to overflow into surface waters at times of heavy rainfall. Sewage overflows are important contributors of human waste to our waters, and therefore to contamination at our beaches.

Often, the best way of avoiding runoff-related pollution and sewage overflows is to reduce the volume of stormwater going to the sewer systems that carry it to nearby water bodies. This can be done effectively using solutions that act to restore natural hydrologic conditions by increasing the amount of permeable, usually vegetated areas. These techniques are collectively known as green infrastructure.

Green infrastructure technologies retain and filter rainwater where it falls, letting it soak back into the ground rather than directing it into waterways. These approaches reduce pollutant flows and minimize the need for often more expensive traditional treatment by utilizing strategically placed rain gardens in yards, tree boxes along city sidewalks, green roofs that use absorbent vegetation on top of buildings, and permeable pavement. Green infrastructure also involves capturing and storing stormwater in rain barrels or cisterns and reusing it, most often for irrigation or other non-potable uses. Many green infrastructure strategies have the added benefits of augmenting the water supply, providing wildlife habitat, minimizing greenhouse gas generation, and enhancing community aesthetics and value.

Because green infrastructure addresses the cause of many pollution problems in urban and suburban areas and because of the multiple benefits it provides, community leaders and decision makers in Washington, D.C., have shown increasing interest in policies that promote it. As a result, there are several opportunities today to greatly improve how the nation handles runoff pollution and, consequently, to improve water quality at America's beaches and in waterways around the country.

Reform National Clean Water Requirements for Stormwater Sources

Existing EPA regulations for sources of runoff pollution, designed more than 20 years ago, have not been implemented in a particularly rigorous way. Historically, the permitting process for stormwater systems has done a poor job of ensuring that discharges from those systems will not contribute to degraded water quality. In particular, municipal sewer systems and private developers frequently have not been required to meet quantitative limits on stormwater runoff volumes and associated pollution levels from sites undergoing development or redevelopment, and they have rarely been required to retrofit developed sites to reduce runoff pollution. Moreover, current requirements typically do not apply to rapidly developing areas outside of existing cities.

In view of these deficiencies, the EPA has initiated an effort to reform the minimum requirements applicable to urban and suburban runoff sources. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to improve the requirements that govern how stormwater sources are controlled to protect water quality. In response to litigation filed by NRDC and the Waterkeeper Alliance several years ago over EPA's failure to update its standards for pollution from construction and development activities, the agency is now working to update the requirements that apply to long-term runoff from developed sites. A proposed rule is expected in the coming year.

To adequately address water quality concerns posed by runoff pollution, the EPA's new rules must adopt objective performance requirements for control of runoff volume from new development and redeveloped sites, which will create strong incentives for the deployment of green infrastructure approaches. What might such a standard look like? The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 requires development and redevelopment projects "involving a Federal facility with a footprint that exceeds 5,000 square feet" to ensure that the property will "maintain or restore, to the maximum extent technically feasible, the predevelopment hydrology of the property with regard to the temperature, rate, volume, and duration of flow."4 EPA subsequently issued technical guidance to explain what "predevelopment hydrology" means in this context, and concluded that "retaining all storms up to and including the 95th percentile storm event is analogous to maintaining or restoring the predevelopment hydrology with respect to the volume, flow rate, duration, and temperature of the runoff for most sites."5 EPA should similarly require new development and redevelopment activities to achieve a very high degree of runoff retention, such that any affected site makes only minimal contributions to the water quality problems caused by stormwater.

In addition, the revised EPA rules should require retrofits in existing developed areas and as part of infrastructure reconstruction projects. Impervious areas that exist right now are responsible for major water quality problems already; in 2010, EPA estimated that urban stormwater nationwide "is the primary source of water quality impairment [for] 13% of all rivers and streams[,] 18% of all lakes [and] 32% of all estuaries."6 Accordingly, EPA's regulatory reforms must ensure that existing impervious areas stop contributing to water degradation by redesigning sites to retain runoff and thereby minimize their pollution.

Finally, the agency needs to ensure that significant runoff sources are covered wherever they are located. Rather than restricting pollution controls to urban areas, EPA's rules should require impervious sites that are important contributors to water quality problems, such as parking lots, to be designed and constructed in a way that prevents runoff from flowing off site and causing problems for nearby waterways. In addition, within municipalities, the EPA's new rules can and should address new development and redevelopment in both combined sewer and separately sewered areas. By requiring owners of sites that create runoff pollution to be responsible for curbing it, EPA's rules would ease the compliance obligations of municipalities that today are forced to deal with the consequences of increased urban runoff.

Improve Enforcement of Authority Under Current Law to Control Polluted Runoff

Even before the EPA reforms its rules, the agency and state pollution control officials should use their authority under current law to ensure that communities implement strong green infrastructure?based plans that achieve critical quality goals for receiving waters. For instance, communities developing long-term control plans for CSOs increasingly rely on enforceable commitments to install green infrastructure as a major component of reducing overflows. NRDC strongly encourages this approach. In 2011, the Philadelphia Water Department and state environmental officials signed an ambitious agreement that commits the city to deploy, over 25 years, the most comprehensive network of green infrastructure found in any U.S. city; key performance metrics will also be incorporated into the city's Clean Water Act permits.7 Cleveland, Cincinnati, Kansas City, and other cities have similar requirements, which are focused initially on near-term investments in green infrastructure, with opportunities to substitute more green in lieu of planned gray infrastructure in future years. These initiatives reflect the fact that the Clean Water Act's standards for reducing CSOs clearly require practicable steps like green infrastructure, and EPA should ensure that all future CSO permits and orders incorporate green infrastructure as part of an integrated approach; the same should apply to sanitary sewer overflows, wherever excessive inflow and infiltration are major contributors to overflows.

Likewise, because green infrastructure will commonly be a cost-effective strategy for reducing pollution from separate stormwater systems, EPA and its state counterparts should develop Clean Water Act permits for these systems that promote green infrastructure by requiring on-site retention of stormwater, and that require green infrastructure directly, in the form of mandates to install specific practices throughout the service area. For example, under an EPA permit issued in October 2011, many development projects in the nation's capital will soon be subject to a strong retention standard. The Washington, D.C., MS4 permit requires that the first 1.2 inches of rainfall be retained on-site at all new development and redevelopment sites that disturb an area greater than 5,000 square feet.8 The permit also specifies that the District must install at least 350,000 square feet of green roofs on city properties and plant 4,150 or more trees per year.9

Ensure That Long-Term Public and Private Financing Is Available for Stormwater Infrastructure Improvements

Congress should help states and local communities make the necessary investment in stormwater infrastructure by substantially increasing the federal resources available to meet clean water needs. Congress should increase its annual contribution to the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (SRF), which provides critical assistance for projects that repair and rebuild failing water and wastewater infrastructure but has been a target for cuts during recent federal budget debates. It should also address this issue for the long-term, through the creation of a trust fund or other dedicated source of clean water funding.

Cities and states must also do their part to ensure that adequate funding exists to support local stormwater management programs. States, which administer federal monies under the SRF, should ensure that no eligibility hurdles remain for municipalities to implement a range of green infrastructure projects with SRF funds. States can also establish their own dedicated sources of funding to support environmental improvements like green infrastructure. Moreover, states should ensure that cities are authorized to establish financing structures (such as stormwater utilities) that can both generate public revenues and stimulate private investment. Cities should use such authority—as hundreds already do—to charge private properties a stormwater fee based on the amount of impervious surface area on the property, with the proceeds applied toward the capital and operating expenses associated with publicly owned stormwater infrastructure. These fee systems often include a credit or discount component whereby customers pay smaller fees if they install qualifying green infrastructure practices on their properties that reduce runoff into the public storm sewer system. Particularly when coupled with innovative financing methods that have been used to spur investment in energy efficiency, such fee-and-credit systems can lure billions of dollars in private investment nationwide, which can offset a portion of the costs otherwise borne by public agencies.10

Notes

  1. 33 U.S.C. § 1314(a)(9).
  2. 33 U.S.C. § 1254(v).
  3. See, e.g., Colford, J.M. Jr., et al., "Using Rapid Indicators for Enterococcus to Assess the Risk of Illness After Exposure to Urban Runoff Contaminated Marine Water," Water Res. 2012 May 1;46(7):2176-86.
  4. Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, Pub. L. 110-140, sec. 438 (December 19, 2007).
  5. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), "Technical Guidance on Implementing the Stormwater Runoff Requirements for Federal Projects Under Section 438 of the Energy Independence and Security Act," at 12 (December 2009).
  6. U.S. EPA, Office of Water, "Stormwater Rulemaking: Listening Sessions" web presentation (February 2010), available at www.epa.gov/npdes/outreach_files/webcast/feb020310/187267/final_sw_rulemaking.pdf.
  7. Levine, Larry (2011). "Philadelphia Gains Approval of Landmark Green Infrastructure Plan, a Model for Smart Water Practices Nationwide," Switchboard: Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) Staff Blog, accessed at switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/llevine/philadelphia_gains_state_appro.html.
  8. See Draft Fact Sheet, National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES), Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4) Draft Permit No. DC0000221, accessed at www.epa.gov/reg3wapd/npdes/pdf/DCMS4/DCMS4DraftFactSheet_04-19-10.pdf.
  9. U.S. EPA Region III (2011), "EPA Approves New Performance Standards for D.C. Stormwater," accessed at http://yosemite.epa.gov/opa/admpress.nsf/90829d899627a1d98525735900400c2b/ac714e4db1dd491c8525792000617a95!OpenDocument.
  10. NRDC, "Financing Stormwater Retrofits in Philadelphia and Beyond" (February 2012), www.nrdc.org/water/stormwater-financing.asp.
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