State Summary: Washington

Ranked 8th 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.

  • Rated
  • Monitoring data available
  • No monitoring data available
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Washington 2012 Beachwater Quality Summary

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

  • 121 (70%) sewage spills/leaks
  • 33 (19%) unknown contamination sources
  • 11 (6%) stormwater runoff
  • 8 (5%) wildlife

Washington State has more than 1,300 publicly accessible beaches along the Pacific Ocean and Puget Sound. The state's beach monitoring program is administered by the Washington State Department of Ecology and the Washington State Department of Health's BEACH Program.

What Are the Water Quality Challenges and Improvements in Washington?

Identifying Sources of Contamination at Wildcat Cove in Larrabee State Park

Larrabee State Park in Whatcom County is a popular site visited by local residents and tourists. Enterococcus levels in water samples at Wildcat Cove, a beach within this state park, have been a concern for years. On June 8, 2011, the Whatcom County Health Department issued a permanent swimming advisory for Wildcat Cove.

Efforts have been under way since 2010 to pinpoint the sources of contamination at Wildcat Cove. In 2011, the BEACH Program received additional funding through the EPA's national estuary program to allow further source identification work. Two streams flowing into the cove were found to have high levels of enterococcus, and a hot spot for bacteria was discovered near a wetland area at the campground bathroom facility. Park staff reported that their wastewater system had been recently updated, and the septic systems at four nearby residences were dye-tested and found to be functioning properly. The source of fecal indicator bacterial contamination at this beach is presumed to be wildlife, as numerous raccoon feces have been observed in the wetland that drains into the two enterococcus-laden streams that flow into the cove.

What Does Beachwater Monitoring Show?1

In 2012, Washington reported 1,534 coastal beaches, of which 62 (4%) were assigned a monitoring frequency of once a week, 2 (<1%) twice a month, and 1 (<1%) less than once a month; 1,469 (96%) were not assigned a monitoring frequency. 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 Freeland County Park/Holmes Harbor in Island County (36%), Little Squalicum Park in Whatcom County (35%), Bayview State Park in Skagit County (27%), Larrabee State Park, Wildcat Cove in Whatcom County (26%), and Mukilteo Lighthouse Park in Snohomish County (24%). Snohomish County had the highest exceedance rate of the daily maximum standard in 2012 (7%) followed by Pierce (3%), Kitsap (3%), King (2%), and Clallam (1%). There were no exceedances at beaches sampled in Thurston, Grays Harbor, Jefferson, and Mason 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.

Washington Percent of Samples Exceeding the State's Daily Maximum Bacterial Standard for 40 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 Washington's Sampling Practices?

    The regular sampling season runs from a week before Memorial Day to Labor Day. The BEACH Program and an interagency committee developed sampling procedures and selected monitoring locations throughout the state. This group also selected which EPA water quality criteria to apply throughout the state, developed a protocol for determining when to recommend to local jurisdictions that a notification be issued, and established practices to be observed when a notification is issued. Samples are taken in knee-deep water. Beaches are chosen for monitoring on the basis of use and the presence of nearby fecal pollution sources such as sewage treatment plants, septic tanks, pet waste, livestock waste, marine mammals, and shorebirds.

    Local jurisdictions and volunteers monitor locations near freshwater and stormwater discharges that transport bacteria into beachwater. If a beach is closed or placed under advisory, the monitoring frequency is increased until the beach is reopened. States that monitor more frequently after an advisory is issued 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 was found.

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

    Total closing/advisory days for 25 events lasting six consecutive weeks or less nearly tripled to 173 days in 2012 from 64 days in 2011. In prior years, there were 131 days in 2010, 48 days in 2009, and 120 days in 2008. In addition, there was 1 extended event (59 days) and 8 permanent events (2,727 days total) 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 25 events lasting six consecutive weeks or less, 11% (19) of closing/advisory days were due to monitoring that revealed elevated bacteria levels, and 89% (154) were preemptive due to known sewage spills or leaks.

    Wildcat Cove at Larrabee State Park in Whatcom County, Walker County Park in Mason County, Edmonds Marina Beach South Dog Park in Snohomish County, Freeland County Park/Holmes Harbor in Island County, Priest Point Park in Thurston County, and Oak Harbor City Beach/Windjammer Park in Island County were under permanent advisory in 2012 because of elevated seasonal geometric means in 2011 or historical bacteria issues. The BEACH Program also recommended permanent advisories for Little Squalicum Park in Whatcom County in July 2012 due to persistently high bacteria levels.

    How Does Washington Determine When to Warn Visitors About Swimming?

    The authority to close beaches and issue advisories (cautions) rests with local health jurisdictions, and whether a notification is issued when the BEACH Program recommends one varies from county to county. The BEACH Program applies the single-sample maximum enterococcus standard of 104 cfu/100 ml to determine whether to make an advisory recommendation. The state also recommends that a permanent advisory be posted if a beach's seasonal geometric mean exceeds 35 cfu/100 ml or when monitoring results indicate a chronic problem. Samples are taken from three locations at each beach, and the bacterial count for the simultaneous samples is averaged before comparison with the standard. Advisories and closures are posted on the Washington State BEACH Program website, and signs are posted at the beach. Monitored beaches are rated green (open), yellow (caution), and red (closed).

    The state recommends that a closing be issued without resampling if a sampling event reveals enterococcus levels greater than 276 cfu/100 ml. If enterococcus levels are greater than 104 but below 276 cfu/100 ml, the state recommends that the beach be resampled, and if the resample reveals enterococcus levels between 104 cfu/100 ml and 276 cfu/100 ml, the state recommends that an advisory be issued. If the resample reveals enterococcus levels above 276 cfu/100 ml, the state recommends a closure. The state recommends that beaches be posted immediately upon notice of a sewage spill that poses a threat to the beach.

    Washington has no preemptive rainfall advisory standards but advises the public to avoid water contact for 48 hours after heavy rains.

    Washington 2012 Monitoring Results and Closing/Advisory Days3

    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.
    3. 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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