How to Understand the State Summaries: Beachwater Quality Monitoring Programs

Program elements

The BEACH Act authorizes the EPA to award grants to states for implementing programs to monitor coastal recreational waters adjacent to beaches used by the public for compliance with the standards for pathogen indicators. Grant funds are also used to notify the public promptly of any exceedances through posting or equivalent means. The allocations for Fiscal Years 2012 and 2013 are included in Table 1.

Many states and localities supplement their BEACH Act funding so that they can achieve the objectives of their beachwater monitoring programs.

Table 1: EPA Funding
State or Territory Fiscal Year 2012 Allocation Fiscal Year 2013 Allocation
Alabama $262,000 $248,000
Alaska $150,000 $142,000
American Samoa $302,000 $286,000
Bad River Tribe no data $47,000
California $506,000 $480,000
Connecticut $222,000 $210,000
Delaware $210,000 $199,000
Florida $516,000 $489,000
Georgia $284,000 $269,000
Grand Portage no data $47,000
Guam $302,000 $286,000
Hawaii $322,000 $305,000
Illinois $241,000 $229,000
Indiana $205,000 $194,000
Louisiana $316,000 $300,000
Maine $252,000 $239,000
Makah (Tribe) no data $47,000
Maryland $266,000 $252,000
Massachusetts $252,000 $239,000
Michigan $274,000 $260,000
Minnesota $202,000 $193,000
Mississippi $253,000 $244,000
New Hampshire $204,000 $193,000
New Jersey $274,000 $260,000
New York $341,000 $323,000
North Carolina $300,000 $284,000
Northern Marianas $303,000 $287,000
Ohio $222,000 $210,000
Oregon $227,000 $215,000
Pennsylvania $221,000 $209,000
Puerto Rico $327,000 $310,000
Rhode Island $212,000 $201,000
South Carolina $294,000 $281,000
Texas $379,000 $359,000
U.S. Virgin Islands $303,000 $287,000
Virginia $273,000 $259,000
Washington $267,000 $254,000
Wisconsin $224,000 $212,000
Total $9,708,000 $9,349,000

Sources: EPA Grants Available to Implement Beach Monitoring and Public Notification Programs in 2012 (Jan. 2012), water.epa.gov/grants_funding/beachgrants/upload/2012fs.pdf & Correspondence from Denise Hawkins, U.S. EPA (June 17, 2013) (on file with NRDC).

Water Quality Standards

Prior to November 2012, EPA's beachwater quality standards included a geometric mean indicator density for at least five samples taken at evenly spaced intervals over 30 days, and a single-sample maximum allowable indicator density.1 Some state and local agencies apply both the geometric mean and the single-sample standards and issue beach closings or advisories if either standard is exceeded; others apply the geometric mean standard or the single-sample standard but not both. Some states apply the single-sample maximum allowable indicator density standard for designated beach areas, some states apply less stringent standards, and some apply designated beach area standards to some of their beaches and less stringent standards to others. Also, there are states that apply additional water quality standards that are not associated with the EPA's standards when they make their closing and advisory decisions. Table 2 summarizes the states' use of water quality standards (more details about state standards are given in the individual state summaries elsewhere in this report).

Table 2 - State Coastal Beachwater Quality Standards (source: see individual state summaries)
State Standards Applied
EPA’s 30-day geometric mean standard for at least five evenly spaced samples taken over a 30-day period (E. coli density of 126 per 100 mL for freshwater, enterococcus density of 35 per 100 mL for marine water) EPA’s “designated beach area” single sample maximum standard (E. coli density of 235 per 100 mL for freshwater; enterococcus density of 104 per 100 mL for marine water) Less stringent single sample maximum standard than the EPA’s “designated beach area” single sample maximum standard Additional indicator organism water quality standard(s)
Alabama x
Alaska x x x
California x[a] x x
Connecticut[b] x x
Delaware[c] x x
Florida x x x[d]
Georgia x x
Hawaii[e] x x
Illinois x
Indiana x
Louisiana x x x
Maine x
Maryland[f] x x x
Massachusetts x x
Michigan[g] x x
Minnesota x x
Mississippi x
New Hampshire[h] x
New Jersey x
New York[i] x x
North Carolina[j] x x x
Ohio x
Oregon x
Pennsylvania x x
Rhode Island x
South Carolina x
Texas x
Virginia x
Washington[k] x x
Wisconsin[l] x x
  • [a] In California, geometric mean standards are sometimes used to keep a beach posted after the single-sample maximum has been exceeded but rarely trigger a posting by themselves.
  • [b] Localities in Connecticut determine how they will apply water quality standards; the state guidelines encourage localities to apply the single-sample maximum standard for designated beach areas and encourage localities to consider the 30-day geometric mean standard when making beach closing and advisory decisions.
  • [c] DNA analyses to track the source of bacteria at Slaughter Beach and Prime Hook Beach have shown that non-human sources contribute to indicator bacteria counts at these beaches. Monitoring results at these beaches are adjusted downwards to account for non-human sources at these beaches before the water quality standard is applied.
  • [d] In the past, Florida applied a fecal coliform single-sample maximum standard of 400 cfu/100 ml. However, the state stopped using the fecal coliform standard when state funding for the beach monitoring program was eliminated in July 2011. Some localities have continued to fund testing for fecal coliform and to apply the fecal coliform standard.
  • [e] Hawaii applies the geometric mean standard and uses quantitative information about the presence of Clostridium perfringens (a tracer for human sewage) when making beach warning decisions at beaches that are monitored at least five times a month. By themselves, exceedances of the single sample standard (including repeat exceedances of the single sample standard) rarely result in a warning at other beaches.
  • [f] Maryland uses the designated beach area single-sample maximum standard at its Tier 1 and Tier 2 beaches and a less stringent single-sample maximum standard at its Tier 3 beaches.
  • [g] Michigan's geometric mean standard is 130 cfu/100 ml for at least five representatively spaced sampling events over 30 days.
  • [h] In New Hampshire, at beaches that are sampled in three locations, when either two or more samples collected at a beach exceed the standard or when one sample exceeds 174 counts/100 ml a beach advisory is issued. The state standard for the geometric mean of at least three samples collected over a 60-day period is 35 cfu/100 ml, but the geometric mean standard is not typically used to issue beach advisories.
  • [i] For freshwater beaches, New York uses an E. coli single-sample maximum of 235 cfu/100 ml or 61 cfu/100 ml for enterococcus (this is the designated beach area standard for enterococcus in freshwater). Whether or not geometric mean standards are applied when making closing and advisory decisions depends on the local beach authority.
  • [j] North Carolina’s water quality standards at its Tier 1 beaches are a single-sample maximum of 104 mpn/100 ml water and a running monthly geometric mean of 35 mpn/100 ml. At Tier 2 beaches, the standard is a single-sample maximum of 276 mpn/100 ml, and at Tier 3 beaches, the standard is a single-sample maximum of 500 mpn/100 ml. During April and October, the standard for Tier 1 beaches is generally the same as the standard for Tier 2 beaches. The geometric mean standard is not applied to Tier 2 and Tier 3 beaches.
  • [k] The geometric mean standard of 35 cfu/100 ml is taken into consideration when determining permanent advisories in Washington.
  • [l] In Wisconsin, the geometric mean water quality standard for fresh water may be used to make closing and advisory decisions at high priority beaches.

Monitoring

There is a considerable amount of variability among state beachwater monitoring protocols. Some states perform additional monitoring after exceedances and when they expect beachwater 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.2 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. Table 3 shows the depth of water samples are collected in by state.

Table 3: Policy-Recommended Water Depth Where Samples are Collected for Coastal States
State Ankle Deep Water Knee Deep Water Waist Deep Water Deeper than Waist Deep
Alabama x
Alaska[1] x
California x
Connecticut[2] x
Delaware x
Florida x
Georgia x
Hawaii[3] x x
Illinois x x
Indiana x
Louisiana x
Maine[4] x
Maryland x
Massachusetts x
Michigan[5] x x
Minnesota[6] x
Mississippi[7] x
New Hampshire x
New Jersey[8] x x x
New York x
North Carolina[9] x x
Ohio x
Oregon[10] x x
Pennsylvania[11] x x
Rhode Island x
South Carolina[12] x x
Texas[13] x
Virginia x
Washington x
Wisconsin x
  • [1] Samples are collected in water that is three feet deep.
  • [2] Samples are collected in water that is 3-4 feet deep.
  • [3] Samples are taken in water that is knee to waist deep.
  • [4] Samples are taken in water that is 2-3 feet deep.
  • [5] Samples are taken in water that is 3-6 feet deep.
  • [6] Samples in the Grand Portage Reservation are collected in water that is 2.5 feet deep, while beaches sampled by the state are sampled in knee-deep water.
  • [7] Samples are taken in water that is 0.5 m deep.
  • [8] Samples are taken in water that is between knee and chest deep.
  • [9] Samples in the surf are taken in knee-deep water; samples taken from boats are taken in wáter that is three feet deep
  • [10] Samples are taken in water that is ankle to knee deep.
  • [11] Samples are taken in water that is 30 inches deep.
  • [12] Samples are taken in water that is 20-40 inches deep.
  • [13] Samples can be collected at the location of greatest swimmer activity instead of in water that is two feet deep under certain conditions.

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.

How to Read the State Summaries

NRDC's report includes the summaries of 30 state beachwater quality standards, monitoring and closing/advisory practices, and NRDC's 2012 monitoring results and closings and advisories, listed alphabetically by state. It is impossible to make direct comparisons between states or to assess trends over time on the basis of advisory and closure data. Standards, monitoring, and closing/advisory practices vary from state to state, making it difficult to know, for example, whether a state with many closings has vigilant health officials or has more coastal pollution. High numbers of closings and advisories, while potentially indicating pollution problems, may also indicate that the state or county is making a good effort to protect the public health by vigilantly monitoring its waters, informing the public when they are polluted and taking a precautionary approach to closings and advisories. States with comprehensive programs and closure practices should be commended for their efforts.

A meaningful way of comparing beachwater quality between states is to compare the percent of monitoring samples taken at each beach that exceed the national single-sample maximum standards for designated beach areas. NRDC provides these values for beaches in all 30 coastal and Great Lakes states. 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 that exceed the state single-sample maximum standard(s). Many states have dedicated and talented individuals that work hard to improve their beachwater quality and to protect public health when beachwater quality is poor. States that do more than monitor their beachwater and issue closings and advisories should be recognized for their extra efforts.

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 samples reported to exceed the EPA's single-sample maximum standard for designated beach areas that existed prior to the November 2012 revisions. For marine water, the standard is an enterococcus density of 104 per 100 ml, and for freshwater it is an E. coli density of 235 per 100 ml. Rankings go from 1st for the state with the lowest percent exceedances to 30th for the state with the highest percent exceedances.

Key Findings

2012 Beachwater Quality Summary: This pie chart shows a measure of water quality at the state's beaches. Beaches with 0% of samples exceeding state's daily standards make up the green slice, beaches whose samples exceeded the state's daily standards more than 0% of the time to 10% of the time make up the yellow slice, beaches whose samples exceeded the state's daily standard more than 10% of the time to 20% of the time make up the orange slice, and beaches whose samples exceeded the state's daily standard more than 20% of the time make up the red slice. Beaches that were not monitored and beaches that were monitored less than 12 times in 2012 make up the grey slice.

Reported Sources of Beachwater Contamination Statewide: The EPA asks states to report a source (usually a source of contamination) for each closing and advisory event, and the reported information is presented in this bulleted list. Sometimes the source of a closure or advisory is not contamination-related; for example, beaches can be closed for riptides or shark sightings. In 2008, some states began systematically reporting beach-specific (not closing and advisory day specific) sources of contamination at their beaches. This information is not presented in the bulleted list.

What Does Beachwater Monitoring Show?

This section describes the number of beaches and beach segments monitored in the state and what their assigned monitoring frequency is. The percent of samples that exceeded state standards is given. For this section, NRDC calculated percent exceedance rates by taking the number of samples exceeding the state's daily maximum single-sample standard(s) 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.

This section also shows the trends in beachwater quality from 2008 to 2012. When making year-to-year comparisons, NRDC only includes beaches that were sampled all five years. Thus, each state summary has three 2012 percent exceedance rates that might not agree: one that was calculated based on the national single-sample maximum water quality standard for designated beach areas (to rank states for 2012), one that was calculated based on the state's daily maximum standard(s) (which might or might not be different than the national standard), and one that was calculated based on the state's daily maximum standard(s) for the set of beaches with reported monitoring results in all five years from 2008 to 2012.

What Are the State's Sampling Practices?

In this section, the state's beach monitoring season is given along with the level of control that the state's program has over local beach monitoring and notification practices. Sampling protocols and factors the states use to determine which beaches to monitor and how frequently to monitor them are also described. This section tells if a state chooses to sample when and where the water quality is suspect, or if monitoring is conducted more frequently after a closing or advisory is issued.

As noted above, having high numbers of closings and advisories, by itself, does not necessarily reveal poor water quality. Instead, it may indicate that the state or county is making a good effort to protect public health by vigilantly monitoring its waters and closing beaches when they are polluted or when officials suspect increased pollution levels.

How Many Beach Closing and Advisories Were Issued in 2012?

The total number of beach closing and advisory days for each beach is included in the monitoring results table mentioned above. In an effort to be consistent in tabulating closings and advisories, NRDC used the following guidelines:

  • Closings or advisories issued for an individual beach for one day are counted as one closing/advisory day.
  • Reported closing/advisory days include only events lasting six consecutive weeks or less. Closing and advisory days for events lasting more than six weeks are reported separately as extended (more than 6 but not more than 13 consecutive weeks) or permanent events (more than 13 consecutive weeks).
  • In the case of standing advisories that depend on local conditions, NRDC is typically unable to calculate the number of days attributable to such events, so they are only included to the extent that states report them to the EPA.

How Does the State Determine When to Warn Visitors About Swimming?

This section describes the state standards. Information about any use of predictive models and preemptive standards for issuing beach closings and advisories is included, as well as what factors are involved when a state decides issue a closing or advisory.

Methodology for NRDC's Report: Sources of Information

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 2012 beach season monitoring and closing/ advisory (i.e., "notification") 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 and closing/advisory data sent to us by the EPA or downloaded from EPA's BEACON website.

NRDC first began contacting states in December, 2012, asking them when and if their annual report would be available and if they could provide NRDC with their monitoring and/or notification data directly. Between January and May, every state was sent a survey about the popular beaches listed in the ratings chart and 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 the notification and monitoring data as well as the narrative material for each state. Follow-up questions about state practices and additional data corrections were made into June, when states and localities were contacted with very specific questions about beaches on the ratings chart.

A summary of contacts made with states to verify program information and monitoring and notification data is given in the table below. These dates do not include original contacts with states, state responses to program surveys, or contacts regarding NRDC's questions outside of the state summary and data review process. Note that in some cases it was difficult to determine which column to put the date for a state response, for example when a state responded to an e-mail about the monitoring data with program information or notification data corrections. In several cases, NRDC stated in their communications with states that if they did not receive responses, NRDC would assume that they were in agreement with the item under review.

Table 4: Summary of Review Process
State Monitoring Data Source Monitoring Data Summary Sent to State for Review State Response[1] Notification Data Source Draft summary with notification and monitoring data analysis, beach by beach data, and program description sent to state/locality for review State/locality latest response to summary and to questions about rated beaches
Alabama State 01/09/13 4/10/13 4/10/13 State 01/09/13 5/24/13 6/7/13
Alaska STORET 02/24/13 2/26/13 2/26/13 EPA 04/23/13 3/28/13 5/20/13
California State 02/13/13 5/17/13 5/17/13 State 02/13/13 6/10/13 6/12/13
Connecticut State 01/09/13 2/7/13 4/3/13 State 01/09/13 5/26/13 6/10/13
Delaware STORET 03/21/13 3/28/13 5/11/13 BEACON 05/23/13 5/24/13 5/28/13
Florida STORET 02/15/13 4/10/13 5/1/13 EPA 04/23/13 5/20/13 6/12/13
Georgia STORET 02/11/13 4/1/13 no response EPA 04/23/13 6/2/13 6/7/13
Hawaii STORET 02/11/13 4/10/13 4/22/13 EPA 05/06/13 5/22/13 6/14/13
Illinois STORET 02/11/13 5/6/13 5/30/13 BEACON 05/23/13 6/4/13 6/14/13
Indiana STORET 05/04/13 5/4/13 5/7/13 EPA 03/20/13 5/20/13 6/11/13
Louisiana STORET 02/25/13 2/26/13 2/26/13 EPA 03/25/13 5/13/13 5/23/13
Maine State 02/15/13 2/26/13 2/26/13 State 02/15/13 5/19/13 5/29/13
Maryland State 04/04/13 5/1/13 5/11/13 EPA 03/20/13 5/23/13 6/12/13
Massachusetts STORET 03/21/13 4/1/13 4/5/13 EPA 05/06/13 5/19/13 6/6/13
Michigan STORET 05/25/13 NA[2] NA EPA 03/07/13 6/2/13 6/10/13
Minnesota BEACON 03/20/13 3/26/13 5/9/13 EPA 03/25/13 5/26/13 6/11/13
Mississippi STORET 02/25/13 2/26/13 3/4/13 EPA 03/11/13 5/20/13 5/24/13
New Hampshire State 01/29/13 1/31/13 02/13[3] State 01/29/13 5/8/13 5/23/13
New Jersey State 01/10/13 2/26/13 5/21/13 State 01/10/13 5/27/13 6/14/13
New York STORET 04/12/13 4/12/13 5/20/13 EPA 04/23/13 6/2/13 6/14/13
North Carolina State 02/18/13 3/2/13 3/2/13 EPA 03/25/13 5/19/13 6/14/13
Ohio State 02/11/13 5/1/13 5/9/13 EPA 05/12/13 5/31/13 6/10/13
Oregon State 03/20/13 3/21/13 3/21/13 EPA 05/12/13 6/4/13 6/13/13
Pennsylvania STORET 02/11/13 4/10/13 4/11/13 EPA 04/23/13 6/3/13 6/12/13
Rhode Island STORET 05/16/13 5/16/13 5/17/13 EPA 05/12/13 6/3/13 6/16/13
South Carolina STORET 03/21/13 3/21/13 3/22/13 EPA 03/25/13 6/3/13 6/11/13
Texas State 01/08/13 2/5/13 2/6/13 State 01/08/13 5/21/13 5/22/13
Virginia State 01/11/13 2/8/13 2/12/13 State 01/11/13 5/6/13 5/30/13
Washington State 01/24/13 4/10/13 4/16/13 State 01/24/13 5/24/13 6/10/13
Wisconsin STORET 02/26/13 2/26/13 3/11/13 EPA 02/13/13 5/21/13 6/7/13
  • [1] In cases were there was a back and forth dialogue with the state, the final response date is shown
  • [2] Michigan gave the go-ahead to use its STORET data too late to allow for summary review
  • [3] Exact date not recorded
  1. United States Environmental Protection Agency. Ambient Water Quality Criteria for Bacteria–1986. EPA440/5-84-002. January 1986.
  2. 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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