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.
Learn More About Your Beach
Guide to Finding a Clean Beach
How to find out whether state and local authorities test for beach pollution, and what they do if they find it.
Wondering how clean the water is at your favorite vacation spot? Finding an answer can be tricky. There is no national protocol for protecting the public from unsafe swimming water, so beach testing and closing/health advisory practices vary from beach to beach and state to state. Some localities regularly test the water quality at their beaches, while others don't. Even when states and localities perform tests, they don't always notify the public or close beaches when bacteria levels in the water exceed health standards.
Finding Help Online
Here's how you can try to check the safety of your favorite beach before you head out for a swim:
To find out if an ocean, bay or Great Lakes beach is monitored regularly for pollution, start with Testing the Waters 2012. The NRDC report will give you the details on beachwater monitoring practices and standards—and tell you how often those standards were exceeded in 2011. It also reports on whether local authorities notify the public when they discover beachwater pollution.
Click here for a list of 200 popular U.S. beaches that rates their water quality and their monitoring and notification practices.
photo: Jake Rome In 2011, there were 23,481 days of closings and advisories at U.S. beaches.
The Environmental Protection Agency's Beaches website is also full of useful information, including a database of testing and beach closures and advisories. The agency's beach Dos and Don'ts also offers tips about how you can help to improve water quality at the beach.
Finding Help at the Local or State Health Department
In most cases, staff members at your town or county health department will be able to answer your questions about local beachwater monitoring. You also can contact a state's health or environmental protection agency.
When you contact local or state health officials, ask:
- What are the sources of pollution affecting the waters where I swim?
- What sort of water quality monitoring for swimmer safety is performed at these beaches?
- Are beaches always closed or the public notified when monitoring shows that the bacterial standard is exceeded?
- What is the current status of these waters (are they closed or open), and what warning signs should you look for if there are water pollution problems?
Avoiding Polluted Beaches
In some cases, beachwater quality test results may be announced on local radio and TV, printed in the newspaper or posted on a website. Also, be on the lookout for posted signs at the beach before you swim.
Whenever possible, swim at beaches that your research shows have the cleanest water, are carefully monitored and have strict closure and advisory procedures. If your beach is not monitored regularly, there are some things you can do to avoid swimming in polluted water:
- If possible, choose beaches that are next to open waters or away from urban areas. They typically pose less of a health risk than beaches in developed areas or in enclosed bays and harbors with little water circulation.
- Look for pipes along the beach that drain stormwater runoff from the streets, and don't swim near them. Avoid swimming in beachwater that is cloudy or smells bad.
- Keep your head out of the water.
- Avoid swimming for at least 24 hours after heavy rains (which can wash pollution into the water).
- Contact local health officials if you suspect beachwater contamination so that others can be protected from exposure.