How Pollution and Climate Change Threaten Our Beaches


Recently, my nine-month old niece, Hermione (her parents are big Harry Potter fans), visited the beach for the first time at the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Given that she’s a baby and still learning about the world, new things often frighten her. Case in point: she wasn’t particularly fond of the sand or the crashing waves during this trip. 

So it’s a good thing she’s not old enough yet to think about all the scary things that could be lurking in the water. Unsafe levels of bacteria, viruses, and parasites coming from stormwater runoff, sewage overflows, agricultural runoff, and other sources oftentimes contaminate beach water and pose public health risks. Contact with these pathogens can cause stomach flu, skin rashes, pinkeye, respiratory infections, meningitis, and hepatitis. As if that weren’t bad enough, climate change is making pollution problems worse by bringing more frequent and heavier rains that can flush even more pollutants into our waterways. That can overwhelm sewage treatment plants with stormwater runoff. It may also fuel the spread of harmful algal blooms

Fortunately for families like Hermione’s who are going to the beach this summer, we’re releasing our annual Testing the Waters report today, which is a unique guide to water quality at over 3,000 beaches across the country. The Testing the Waters website provides an easy-to-use, zip-code searchable map with localized information on which coastal and Great Lakes beaches have had water quality violations, how often those beaches conduct water testing, and whether beach closings and advisories were issued to make the public aware of any health risks. You can see how your favorite beach stacks up to others.   

In addition to notifying the public after the water is polluted, there are ways we can limit the amount of pollution that contaminates our beaches in the first place. Green infrastructure like green roofs, rain gardens, and bioswales capture rain right where it falls, helping to reduce the amount of stormwater that enters sewer systems and to filter pollutants from stormwater. Green infrastructure also can reduce local flooding risks from increasingly more frequent and heavier rainfall events that are occurring due to climate change. In Duluth, Minnesota, rain gardens are being used to divert and capture stormwater before it floods homes. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) also is working in cities like Toledo, Ohio and Green Bay, Wisconsin to use green infrastructure to reduce flooding risks.

This fall, the Environmental Protection Agency has a critical once-in-a-generation opportunity to help American cities and suburbs embrace these common-sense green infrastructure solutions. EPA is slated to issue a much-anticipated new federal stormwater rule that can help boost green infrastructure, and as a direct result, significantly reduce the polluted runoff at our beaches. Tell EPA that you support a strong stormwater rule by clicking here.

And by using our guide for finding a clean beach and following the plan of action in Testing the Waters for cleaning up our beaches, we know Hermione’s future beach visits will be much more pleasant than the first.