State Summary: Virginia

Ranked 6th 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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Virginia 2012 Beachwater Quality Summary

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

  • 29 (100%) unknown contamination sources

Virginia has 49 public beaches stretching along 70 miles of Atlantic and Chesapeake Bay waters. The state’s beachwater quality monitoring program is administered by the Virginia Department of Health (VDH).

Virginia Water Quality Challenges and Improvements

Beach monitoring has occurred at Norfolk and Virginia Beach since 1976. In the early 2000s, Virginia expanded the beach monitoring program to include all major beaches in the state. The VDH recognizes that contamination of beachwater due to sanitary sewer overflows, breaks in pipes, boat discharges, stormwater runoff, and wildlife poses a risk to human health. The goal of the program is to inform the public and protect recreational swimmers from contaminated water.

Since 2006, the VDH has partnered with Virginia Tech to help determine sources of pollution. When an exceedance of the standard is detected, a sample is sent to Virginia Tech for microbial source tracking analysis. Results are used to determine if the source of pollution is from humans, pets, or wildlife. If a human source is detected in the samples, the VDH and Virginia Tech review the data and collect additional samples if necessary to identify the source and notify the city or municipality. This information helps the city or municipality make infrastructure changes that improve water quality.

What Does Beachwater Monitoring Show?1

In 2012, Virginia reported 49 coastal beaches. Of these, 47 (96%) were assigned a monitoring frequency of once a week, and 2 (4%) were not assigned a monitoring frequency. One additional beach, Assateague Island National Seashore, straddles Accomack County, Virginia, and Worcester County, Maryland; it is monitored once a week by the state of Maryland. Although Marlyand conducts the monitoring, the results for Assateague Island are included in this summary.

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 state daily maximum standard in 2012 were Fairview Beach in King George County (25%), Lesner Bridge East in the city of Virginia Beach (17%), and 10th View Beach Access in the city of Norfolk (9%). King George County had the highest exceedance rate of the daily maximum standard in 2012 (25%), followed by Norfolk (5%), Newport News (5%), Accomack (4%), Virginia Beach (2%), and Northampton (2%) counties. There were no exceedances at beaches monitored in Gloucester, Hampton, Mathews, or York counties. 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.

Virginia Percent of Samples Exceeding the State's Daily Maximum Bacterial Standard for 44 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 Virginia's Sampling Practices?

    The monitoring season runs from mid-May through Labor Day, with some sites sampled through the beginning of October. The VDH determines sampling practices, locations, standards, and notification protocols and practices throughout the state. Samples are collected in water 0.5 meter deep, 0.3 meter from the surface.

    Priority for monitoring is given to sampling sites that are in close proximity to wastewater outfalls, sites that have high bather load, and sites where there is easy access to the beach. If a beach is placed under advisory or closed, the water is resampled immediately (with a duplicate sample sent for microbial source tracking analysis), and the monitoring frequency is increased until the water meets state water quality standards and the beach is reopened. States that monitor more frequently after an exceedance 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 was found.

    The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and the VDH, including the Virginia Division of Shellfish Sanitation, work together to regularly monitor the water, including shellfish-growing areas, for the presence of harmful algal blooms and to conduct surveillance for human health effects.

    How Many Beach Closings and Advisories Were Issued in 2012?2

    Total closing/advisory days for 23 events lasting six consecutive weeks or less decreased 58% to 29 days in 2012 from 69 days in 2011. For prior years, there were 81 days in 2010, 51 days in 2009, 29 days in 2008, 50 days in 2007, 43 days in 2006, and 42 days in 2005. In addition, there were no extended or 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. All closing and advisory days in 2012 were due to monitoring that revealed elevated bacteria levels.

    How Does Virginia Determine When to Warn Visitors About Swimming?

    The VDH has authority to issue advisories and to close beaches. Virginia’s water quality standard is a single-sample maximum of 104 cfu/100 ml. No geometric mean standard is applied when making closing and advisory decisions. If more than one sampling site at a beach exists, the average of the results for all sampling sites is used to make closing and advisory decisions for that beach. If a sample (or average of samples) exceeds the standard, an advisory is issued immediately and environmental health specialists are sent to the site for resampling.

    A swimming advisory sign is posted at the beach, and a press release is sent to the local newspaper notifying the public that an exceedance of the state water quality standard has occurred. Additionally, advisory information is updated on the VDH beach advisory website. The swimming advisory remains in place until laboratory results show that bacteria levels have fallen below Virginia’s water quality standard.

    Virginia does not have preemptive rainfall standards, but closings and advisories may be considered on the basis of events such as a harmful algal blooms, fish kills, oil spills, or sewage spills.

    Virginia 2012 Monitoring Results and Closing/Advisory Days

    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. 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.


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