State Summary: Pennsylvania

Ranked 23th in Beachwater Quality (out of 30 states)
9% 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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Pennsylvania 2012 Beachwater Quality Summary

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

  • 41 (100%) stormwater runoff

Pennsylvania has 40 miles of Lake Erie coastline, all within Erie County. Under Pennsylvania law, public swimming is allowed only at beaches operated by an individual or organization that has a valid permit from the Pennsylvania Department of Health. There are eight miles of permitted public bathing beaches, including nine beaches at Presque Isle State Park; one, Freeport Beach, in North East Township; and one at Camp Fitch in Springfield Township. The coastal beach monitoring program is administered by the Erie County Department of Health (ECDH).

What Are the Water Quality Challenges and Improvements in Pennsylvania?

Predictive Models at Presque Isle

Presque Isle State Park is a very popular swimming area, with an estimated 4 million visitors annually, the majority of whom visit the park between Memorial Day and Labor Day. In 2004, the ECDH began developing a predictive beachwater quality model for Presque Isle State Park based on weather, known sewage discharges, storm events, and water currents. In 2012, the ECDH continued to develop the predictive model in cooperation with the Regional Science Consortium (RSC) at the Tom Ridge Environmental Center, Mercyhurst University, Penn State Behrend, and Presque Isle State Park. The program uses historical data from sample monitoring and water quality data from two water buoys off Presque Isle beaches, and considers weather conditions such as wind direction and rainfall. To make decisions regarding precautionary advisories, the RSC conducts quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR) analyses, a method that targets genetic sequences found in enterococcus bacteria, allowing public health officials to issue same-day warnings for poor beachwater quality.

What Does Beachwater Monitoring Show?1

In 2012, Pennsylvania reported 13 Lake Erie beaches, all of which were assigned a monitoring frequency of twice a week. In 2012, 9% of all reported beach monitoring samples exceeded the state's daily maximum bacterial standard of 235 colonies/100 ml. The beaches with the highest percent exceedance rates of the state standard in 2012 were Beach 6 (14%), Mill Road Beaches (12%), Beach 11 (11%), Beach 7 (Water Works Beach) (10%), and Barracks Beach (10%), all in Erie County. 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.

Pennsylvania Percent of Samples Exceeding the State's Daily Maximum Bacterial Standard for 9 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 Pennsylvania's Sampling Practices?

    Beachwater quality monitoring is conducted from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Practices are regulated by the state, with permit holders allowed to monitor more frequently than the state requires if they desire. Samples are collected in water that is approximately 30 inches deep, midway between the surface and the bottom. By regulation, at least three samples of water are taken from each beach at least once a week. Two samples are taken approximately 50 feet from each end of the beach, and the third sample is taken in the center. Presque Isle State Park is monitored twice a week due to high swimming use of the beaches there.

    When a sample is found to exceed bacterial standards, beaches are resampled for three consecutive days so officials will be able to lift advisories and/or restrictions as soon as possible. States that monitor more frequently after an exceedance is found will tend to have higher percent exceedances and lower total 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 8 events lasting six consecutive weeks or less more than doubled to 41 days in 2012 from 18 days in 2011. For prior years, there were 14 days in 2010, 34 days in 2009, and 45 days in 2008. 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. For the 8 events lasting six consecutive weeks or less, all closing/advisory days in 2012 were due to monitoring that revealed elevated bacteria levels.

    The dramatic increase in advisories is likely due to the increase in precautionary advisories from the predictive modeling in place at Presque Isle.

    How Does Pennsylvania Determine When to Warn Visitors About Swimming?

    Swimming advisories and restrictions, rather than beach closings, are issued at Pennsylvania's Lake Erie beaches. If a single-sample E. coli count is between 235 and 1,000 cfu/100 ml, a swimming advisory is issued. Swimming is permitted, but the public is informed that the E. coli level exceeds standards, and potential swimmers are advised about what precautions to take should they enter the water. If a single-sample count is 1,000 cfu/100 ml or greater, a swimming restriction is posted and swimming is prohibited. Three samples are taken per sampling event, and the results are averaged before comparing them with the standards. Pennsylvania also uses a 5-sample, 30-day geometric mean standard for E. coli of 126 cfu/100 ml to post restrictions. There is no protocol for delaying or forgoing an advisory or restriction when bacterial standards are exceeded.

    If rainfall exceeds 0.5 inch in a 24-hour period, Presque Isle State Park officials conduct a visual analysis of the beaches, monitor conditions such as wind and current direction, and determine whether a preemptive rain advisory should be issued. Beaches are also preemptively posted with restrictions when there is a known sewage spill and when high waves and strong winds out of the west are present.

    Pennsylvania 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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