Swim Safe: Check Out Your Favorite Beach's Water Quality and Act to Help Keep It Clean

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I never feel more like a kid than when I’m at the beach.  Perhaps that’s because I have to keep up with my own kids doing crazy stuff, but also there’s something blissfully immature about body surfing, getting overtaken by a huge wave, and tumbling out of control until you come to rest in a couple inches of water, swim trunks full of sand, only to be knocked over by the next breaker.  (Yep, that's a 16-year-old me to the right.)  The beach is simply a great place to ditch your worries and play.  If you feel the same way, I want to share some news and some tools you can use to keep your trip to the beach carefree.

Today, NRDC released Testing the Waters: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches, our annual beach water report.  The report collects and analyzes the latest water testing results from the EPA and state beach coordinators at nearly 3,500 coastal and Great Lakes beach testing locations nationwide. The 24th annual report card examines the various causes of water pollution that plague America’s beaches and presents crucial, timely opportunities to keep pollution out of America’s beaches, lakes and rivers.

The bad news: ten percent of all water quality samples collected last year from nearly 3,500 coastal and Great Lakes beaches in the U.S. contained bacteria levels that failed to meet the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s most protective benchmark for swimmer safety.  And, our report flagged 17 “repeat offenders” that exhibited chronic water pollution problems.

On the plus side, numerous beaches around the country routinely passed the safety test.  And some of them did so for several years running.  Our report identified 35 popular “superstar” beaches with excellent water quality over a five year period. 

Another piece of good news: to help keep us healthy at the beach and stem the tide of water pollution, our government leaders have a unique opportunity to adopt a critical proposal – the Clean Water Protection Rule – which will restore vital protections for the streams and wetlands that help sustain clean beaches.


Below, I’ll get into a few of the details, but I urge you to take a look at the full online report.  It also includes an updated, mobile-friendly map of nearly 3,500 beaches nationwide that is searchable by zip code, making it easier than ever for users to check important water quality information at their local beaches.  And it provides lots of detail about the Clean Water Protection Rule, and a way for you to take action to make sure the rule gets done


NRDC designated 35 popular beaches across 14 states as “superstars” – popular beaches for consistently meeting water quality safety thresholds. Each of these beaches met national water quality benchmarks 98% of the time over the past five years.

  • Three Alabama beaches: Gulf Shores Public Beach andGulf State Park Pavilion in Baldwin County and Dauphin Island Public Beach
  • California: 38th Street section of Newport Beach in Orange County
  • Delaware: Dewey Beach-Swedes in Sussex County
  • Three Florida beaches: Bowman’s Beach in Lee County, Coquina Beach South in Manatee County and Fort Desoto North Beach in Pinellas County
  • Georgia: Tybee Island North in Chatham County
  • Three Hawaiian beaches: Hapuna Beach St. Rec. Area in Big Island, Po’ipu Beach Park in Kauai, and Wailea Beach Park in Maui
  • Massachusetts: Singing Beach in Essex County
  • Two Maryland beaches: Point Lookout State Park in St Mary's County and Assateague State Park in Worcester County
  • Four North Carolina beaches: Ocean Pier at Main St. and Sunset Blvd. in Brunswick County, Beach at Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in Dare County, Ocean Pier at Salisbury Street in Wrightsville Beach in New Hanover, and Ocean Pier at Ocean Blvd. and Crews Ave. in Topsail Beach in Pender County        
  • Three New Hampshire beaches: Hampton Beach State Park, Wallis Sands Beach at Wallis Rd., and Wallis Sands State Park in Rockingham County
  • Seven New Jersey beaches: Washington (Margate) in Atlantic County, Broadway (Pt. Pleasant Beach) in Ocean County, and a handful of Cape May County beaches -- 40th St. (Avalon), 40th St. (Sea Isle City), Stone Harbor at 96th St., Upper Township at Webster Rd., and Wildwood Crest at Orchid
  • New York: Long Beach City in Nassau County
  • Four Virginian beaches: Virginia Beach at 28th St.,  Virginia Beach at 45th St, Back Bay Beach, and Virginia Beach - Little Island Beach North – all in Virginia Beach County
  • Washington: Westhaven State Park, South Jetty in Grays Harbor      


Over the last five years of this report, sections of 17 U.S. beaches have stood out as having persistent contamination problems, with water samples failing to meet public health benchmarks more than 25 percent of the time each year from 2009 to 2013:

  • California: Malibu Pier, 50 yards east of the pier, in Los Angeles County
  • Indiana: both monitored sections of Jeorse Park Beach in Lake County
  • Massachusetts: Cockle Cove Creek in Barnstable County
  • Maine: Goodies Beach in Knox County
  • New Jersey: Beachwood Beach in Ocean County
  • Three New York beaches: Main Street Beach in Chautauqua County, Wright Park – East in Chautauqua County and Ontario Beach in Monroe County
  • Seven Ohio beaches: Lakeshore Park in Ashtabula County, Arcadia Beach, Euclid State Park, Noble Beach, Sims Beach, and Villa Angela State Park in Cuyahoga County, and Edson Creek in Erie County
  • Wisconsin: South Shore Beach in Milwaukee County

 Important note: some of these beaches have multiple sections that are tested for water quality, and in some instances only certain sections of a beach qualified for the repeat offender list. 


This year’s report found that 10 percent of beach water samples taken nationwide in 2013 failed to meet the most protective federal public health standard used to assess water quality at American beaches – EPA’s newly-created “Beach Action Value” (BAV).

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Based on EPA’s safety threshold, the BAV, the Great Lakes region had the highest failure rate of beach water quality samples, with 13 percent of samples failing to pass the safety test in 2013. The Delmarva region had the lowest failure rate, with 4 percent of samples failing the safety test. In between were the Gulf Coast (12 percent), New England (11 percent), the Western Coast (9 percent), the New York and New Jersey coasts (7 percent), and the Southeast (7 percent).

Individual states with the highest failure rates of reported water samples in 2013 were Ohio (35 percent), Alaska (24 percent) and Mississippi (21 percent). Those with the lowest failure rates last year were Delaware (3 percent), New Hampshire (3 percent) and New Jersey (3 percent).

The national results in this year’s report show an uptick in failure rates for beach water quality safety due to the report’s reliance on the Beach Action Value, which is a more protective health benchmark used for the first time in 2013 in lieu of a now defunct and less-protective beach water quality standard.

This lack of progress can be changed.  NRDC’s report focuses on two evergreen solutions for making that change happen.


Every year, more than 10 trillion gallons of untreated stormwater, as well as hundreds of billions of gallons of untreated sewage overflows, make their way into America’s waterways, according to the EPA. Contaminated runoff has historically been the largest known source of beach water pollution.

Therefore, the most immediate and high-priority action to address water pollution at the nation’s beaches is to finalize and adopt the Clean Water Protection Rule proposed by the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers. This federal rule would ensure tributary streams and wetlands are protected from pollution under the Clean Water Act. The proposed rule is critical to virtually all communities and beachgoers, impacting the hundreds of billions of dollars spent annually on outdoor recreation. The proposed rule, officially known as the “Waters of the U.S. Rule,” is open for public comment until October 20 and demands a strong showing of public support to become final.

This infographic tells the tale of how our water systems are connected. 

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And, of course, the best way to keep this pollution out of America’s beach water is to prevent it from the start – by investing in smarter, greener infrastructure on land, like porous pavement, green roofs, parks, roadside plantings and rain barrels. Green infrastructure addresses stormwater pollution by stopping rain where it falls, enabling it to evaporate or filter into the ground naturally instead of carrying runoff from dirty streets to our beaches.

Sensible green infrastructure solutions keep stormwater from becoming wastewater and prevent sewage systems from overflowing. These techniques turn rainwater from a huge pollution liability into a plentiful, local water supply resource.  They also beautify neighborhoods, cool and cleanse the air, reduce asthma and heat-related illnesses, save on heating and cooling energy costs, boost economies, and support American jobs.


Be sure to use our Guide to Finding a Clean Beach, which has a bunch of handy tips for staying healthy and that also provides links to state websites providing more recent information about testing.

If you forget to look before heading out, we also have a handy mobile site: m.beachquality.org, from which you can search for individual beaches and learn about their reported test results.

Have a great summer, and enjoy the beach. 

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