Understanding the State Summaries

How to Read the State Summaries

The Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health (BEACH) Act helps states and local governments develop and fund monitoring programs to protect public health. Through these programs local officials test beach water for bacteria and issue closings or advisories when bacteria levels exceed a certain threshold. States report their data to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Recently the EPA issued a new Beach Action Value (BAV), which is a more protective threshold than the national allowable bacteria levels used in previous years to trigger beach advisories. The EPA considers the BAV to be a "conservative, precautionary tool for making beach notification decisions." While the use of the BAV is currently optional, it is important for beach managers to use. Indeed, the EPA's proposed National Beach Guidance and Required Performance Criteria for Grants would require states receiving BEACH Act funding to use the BAV safety threshold to trigger beach notifications. In light of this information, in evaluating 2013 beach water quality, NRDC chose to use the BAV in order to best protect beachgoers from water quality health risks.

NRDC's Testing the Waters report includes beach water quality monitoring summaries for 30 states that participate in the BEACH Act program. To track water quality within the state over time, NRDC also provides information on the percent of monitoring samples taken at beaches monitored consistently from year to year over a five year period. The state summaries are organized into sections as described below.

Rank in the Nation

Each state's national ranking in percent exceedances is based on the percentage of reported samples that exceeded the EPA's Beach Action Value (BAV) safety threshold for designated beach areas in 2013. For marine and estuarine water, the BAV safety threshold is 60 enterococcus bacteria colony forming units (cfu) per 100 ml water in a single sample. For freshwater the BAV safety threshold is 190 E. coli bacteria cfu per 100 ml freshwater in a single sample. Rankings go from 1st for the state with the lowest percent exceedances to 30th for the state with the highest percent exceedances.

Percent of Samples Exceeding National Beach Action Value

This is the overall percentage of water quality samples in a given state that exceeded the BAV safety threshold for designated beach areas in 2013.

2013 Beach Water Quality Summary

The pie chart depicts the range of water quality monitored at the state's beaches. Beaches with 0% of samples exceeding the BAV safety threshold make up the green slice, beaches whose samples exceeded the BAV safety threshold between 0% to 10% of the time make up the yellow slice, beaches whose samples exceeded the BAV safety threshold between 10% to 20% of the time make up the orange slice, and beaches whose samples exceeded the BAV safety threshold more than 20% of the time make up the red slice. Beaches that were not monitored and beaches that were monitored fewer than 12 times in 2012 make up the grey slice.

What Does Beach Water Monitoring Show?

This section describes the number of beaches and beach segments monitored in the state and gives the percent of samples that exceeded the BAV safety threshold. For this section, NRDC calculated percent exceedance rates by taking the number of samples exceeding the BAV safety threshold and dividing that number by the total number of samples collected during the calendar year. 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. These exceedance determinations are used for tracking water quality over time. The list of beaches with highest exceedances in the state excludes beaches with less than 12 monitoring samples reported during the year.

State Water Quality Trend 2009-2013

This section illustrates trends in beach water quality exceedances from 2009 to 2013. When making year-to-year comparisons, NRDC only includes beaches that were sampled all five years.

Percent exceedance rates in 2009-2012 are based on the national single-sample maximum standards for designated beach areas in place at that time (104 enterococcus bacteria cfu/100 ml marine or estuarine water and 235 E. coli bacteria cfu/100 ml freshwater). For comparison purposes, exceedance rates for 2013 are shown based on the historical national standard as well as on EPA's new BAV threshold (60 enterococcus bacteria cfu/100 ml marine or estuarine water and 190 E. coli cfu/100 ml freshwater).

Note that each state summary has two 2013 percent exceedance rates that might not agree: one that was calculated based on the BAV safety threshold for all reported designated beach areas (to rank states for 2013 and to determine overall percent exceedances), and one that was calculated based on the BAV safety threshold for only the set of beaches with reported monitoring results in all five years from 2009 to 2013 (for the bar chart).

State 2013 Monitoring Results

This section includes a table listing all individual beaches and beach segments that the state reported to EPA in 2013. The table includes the beach name, the county in which it is located, total number of samples, the percent of samples exceeding the BAV safety threshold and a link to view the beach on a map.

Methodology for NRDC's Report

Sources of Information

Our coastal and Great Lakes states have dedicated and talented individuals that work hard to improve their beach water quality and to protect public health when beach water quality is poor. States that do more than monitor their beach water and issue closings and advisories should be recognized for their extra efforts.

NRDC relies on the EPA's electronic reporting system for information collected under the federal BEACH Act. Information from the electronic reporting system has been supplemented by NRDC surveys of state and local officials. Beach monitoring coordinators in nearly every state cooperated with NRDC with a great deal of patience and grace and provided interesting and meaningful information for this report. NRDC is thankful for their time and their openness.

Although greatly improved, the EPA's electronic data submission system continues to experience some technical problems, resulting in potential delays in data availability and incomplete data. Therefore, NRDC requested 2013 beach season monitoring data directly from the states. When states provided these data, NRDC used them; otherwise, we used monitoring data downloaded from the EPA's STORET website.

Outreach to States

NRDC first began contacting states in January, 2013, asking them when and if their annual report would be available and if they could provide NRDC with their monitoring data directly. Between January and May, every state was sent a survey about general management practices. Between February and mid-May, every state was sent a summary of monitoring data for their verification. NRDC sent each state a draft of their summary for review, verification, and comment. This draft contained NRDC's analysis of monitoring data as well as the narrative material for each state. Follow-up questions and additional data corrections were made into early June, when states and localities were contacted with specific questions. In some cases, NRDC indicated in communications with states that if they did not receive updates by a date certain, NRDC would use the information as shared with the states. A summary of contacts made with states to verify program information and monitoring data is available upon request.

State Monitoring and Notification Practices

Monitoring

There is a considerable amount of variability among state beach water monitoring protocols. Some states perform additional monitoring after exceedances and when they expect beach water to be contaminated. Others adhere to a schedule that doesn't vary with circumstances. Some states take multiple samples that are composited before analysis, or analyze multiple samples and average the results before applying them to the water quality standard.

States also vary as to how often they sample. Some states monitor their high-priority beaches almost daily, while other states monitor their high-priority beaches less than once a week. Moreover, sampling techniques differ by state. The EPA recommends that samples be collected 12 inches below the surface in water that is three feet deep, but states report collecting samples at varying depths. Some states are particular about collecting samples at a particular time of day or tidal stage. Samplers in some states wade into the surf and hold the collection container in their hand to collect the sample, others use a telescoping golf ball retriever so samples are collected far from the sampler's body.

Sampling practices can have a major impact on whether or not an advisory or closing is issued. A study conducted at Hobie Beach in Florida found that samples taken at times of high solar radiation were less likely to exceed standards than samples taken when solar radiation was low.1 Solar radiation varies with the time of year, the time of day, and the clarity of the atmosphere; it is greatest at high noon near the summer solstice on a clear day. The same study found that enterococcus levels were higher in samples that were collected in knee-deep water than in samples taken in waist-deep water.

Public Notification Practices

Along with different standards for triggering an advisory or closure, states vary as to whether or not they issue a public health advisory or close a beach or both when sampling has found bacteria levels that exceed the standards. Some states wait until there have been two consecutive standard violations before an advisory is issued, and some take other factors into account when an exceedance occurs before deciding to issue a closing or advisory.

Methods for notifying the public of health advisories and beach closures are variable among states as well, and for some beaches it may be difficult for beachgoers to get complete information about any notifications. States make use of a variety of notification methods, including the Internet, toll-free phone lines, signs posted at beaches, electronic notifications, newspaper notices, and television and radio coverage in conjunction with the weather report. At a minimum, public notification for beach closings and advisories should include a sign or flag at the beach and an easily located website. Links to state websites with beach information can be found on the individual state summary pages and on the Guide to Finding a Clean Beach page.

  1. Vogel, LJ, AA Enns, AM Abdelzaher, HM Solo-Gabriele. Spatial and Temporal Variation in Indicator Microbe Sampling and its Effects on Beach Management Decisions. Poster at Beach Conference. Miami, FL. March 2011.

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