Swim Smart this Summer: How to Steer Clear of Beach Pollution

Image removed.Memorial Day is this coming Monday.  For me, the best part of the weekend is that my entire neighborhood gathers on the footbridge over Route 66 in Virginia to watch and wave to the veterans riding in the “Rolling Thunder” motorcycle parade, making their way to the National Mall. 

But Memorial Day weekend is also generally recognized as the unofficial start of beach season, a time of the year when lots of folks’ thoughts turn to sand castles, body surfing, and drifting off to sleep on a towel to the white noise of a crowded beach. 

Here at NRDC, because we’re working like mad on the 21st edition of “Testing the Waters,” our annual report on water quality and closings and advisories at coastal and Great Lakes beaches, our thoughts are in the gutter – the gutter that carries urban runoff, that is.


Kiran at beach Aug 09.JPG


     That's my eldest above, likely seconds before being assaulted by the younger one.

The primary focus of beach water monitoring and swimming advisories is on pathogens – bacteria, viruses, and other noxious things that can make people sick (with things like stomach flu) after jumping in the water.  These pathogens come from a variety of sources, but two big ones are contaminated stormwater and sewage overflows.  In coastal areas where urban runoff discharges directly to surface waters, it picks up all manner of things, including animal waste, as it makes its way to the ocean; this can result in contaminated beach water.  In addition, over 700 communities, largely located in the Northeast and Great Lakes region, have “combined” sewer systems, meaning that sewage flushed from homes and businesses is carried by the same pipes that receive runoff from streets and other impervious areas when it rains.  These systems were originally constructed many decades (in some cases over a century) ago, and are designed to allow the mix of raw sewage and runoff to overflow into our rivers when we have a significant enough rainfall.

Our experts are still crunching the numbers from last year's swimming season, so please check back here in about a month for the details about your favorite beach.  But if past is prologue, many beaches around the country will still have water quality problems brought on by too much runoff. 

The good news is that runoff pollution and combined sewer overflows can be reduced by using low-impact development techniques (also known as "green infrastructure").  Low-impact development techniques retain and filter rainwater where it falls and let it soak back into the ground, rather than dumping it into waterways or to sewage treatment systems.  These techniques include strategically placed rain gardens in yards, tree boxes along city sidewalks, green roofs that use absorbent vegetation on top of buildings, and permeable pavement that allows water to penetrate the material, unlike asphalt or concrete.  Another technique is to capture and store rainwater in rain barrels or cisterns so it can be reused for irrigation or other non-potable uses.  Check out the video below for a great summary.

People can also help prevent beach pollution by taking simple steps, such as picking up pet waste, maintaining septic systems, putting swim diapers with plastic covers on babies, and keeping trash off the beach.  EPA also has a useful list of beach dos and don’ts that gives a bunch of tips, including some to minimize pollution at the beach.

I hope you have a wonderful holiday weekend, and that many of you get out to enjoy the beach.  Before you do, be sure to consult our guide to finding a clean beach.  I also hope you'll think about how they can be made even cleaner, and remember to check back here for "Testing the Waters 2011" for lots more information about how we can get cleaner beach water.

Photo from 2007 Rolling Thunder Ride for Freedom by John J. Kruzel / U.S. Department of Defense