Great Lakes Beaches -- Working Together, We Can Make Them Safer and Cleaner

Beach days are summer rites of passage, especially here in the Great Lakes.  Pack up a picnic, towels, sunscreen, and you’re good to go.  Oh, wait.  Did you remember to check to make sure your favorite beach is safe for swimming?  Last year, our family had two beach days ruined because our favored beach destinations were closed – one because of Lake Erie algal blooms.

NRDC’s annual beach water report, Testing the Waters: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches, which we released today, collects and analyzes the latest water testing results from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and state beach coordinators at nearly 3,500 beach testing locations nationwide. The 24th annual report card examines the various causes of water pollution that plague America’s beaches and identifies opportunities for all of us – government leaders, homeowners and beachgoers – to keep pollution out of our beaches, lakes and rivers.

Working together is especially important here in the Great Lakes, where 13 percent of water quality samples collected last year failed to meet EPA’s most protective benchmark for swimmer safety (that compares to a 10 percent national failure rate).  And, 13 of the 17 beaches deemed “repeat offenders” for chronic water pollution problems were in Indiana, New York, Ohio and Wisconsin.

Beaches across our region are plagued by a variety of pollution sources and major environmental stresses, including climate change, aging and failing infrastructure, nutrient pollution and lack of federal policies that fully protect the rivers and streams that feed into the Great Lakes.

Luckily, the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers are working to ensure tributary streams and wetlands are protected from pollution under the Clean Water Act.  The agencies recently proposed a Clean Water Protection Rule, which will help better protect our beaches and the local economies that depend on them. The proposed rule, officially known as the “Waters of the U.S. Rule,” is open for public comment until October 20; here’s how you can take action to make sure the rule fully protects Great Lakes beaches

By removing pollutants from water that passes through them, and by retaining stormwater that often causes pollution problems, wetlands and small streams help ensure that the Great Lakes remain safe for swimming and fishing.  That’s because streams—regardless of their size and flow pattern—and wetlands near rivers, lakes and other waters are “physically, chemically, and biologically connected to downstream rivers,” according a major assessment by EPA scientists published in 2013.

For years the Clean Water Act protected all wetlands and tributaries in the Great Lakes region—those by lakeshores and those inland. Those protections were cast in doubt as a result of Supreme Court decisions in 2001 and 2006 and subsequent agency guidance issued by former President George W. Bush. The Clean Water Protection Rule addresses this lack of clarity and ensures that important surface waters are protected from pollution by the Clean Water Act.

The Great Lakes region has already lost approximately 66 percent of its historic wetlands. Ohio has lost 90 percent, the second-highest loss rate in the nation; Illinois has lost 85 percent of its wetlands. An estimated 90 percent of the wetlands remaining in the Great Lakes are at increased risk due to the uncertainty over whether they are subject to Clean Water Act safeguards. Because about 50 percent of the streams in Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota do not flow all year, they too have been at risk of increased pollution and destruction because of a lack of clarity about their status under the law. And more than 30.6 million Great Lakes’ residents depend on these types of waterbodies for their drinking water.

Protecting these water bodies is not only important to beach water and drinking water quality, but also critical to the goals of the Great Lakes Regional Collaboration Strategy and the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. The former’s goals, to restore a million acres of high-quality wetlands in the region and increase natural buffers for rivers and streams, would be significantly undermined by leaving the region’s remaining intact wetlands and streams at risk. The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has successfully invested hundreds of millions of dollars across the basin to restore degraded habitats. Those investments depend on healthy upstream waters.

The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) is also investing in solutions that help better manage stormwater, historically the largest known source of beach water pollution. GLRI grants are helping cities across the Basin – Buffalo, New York; Cleveland, Ohio, Chicago, Illinois and Racine, Wisconsin – install green infrastructure to prevent contaminated stormwater from evet reaching our beaches.  Green infrastructure curbs 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.

Already, scores of cities and states are reaping the benefits of green infrastructure solutions to meet clean water requirements and create healthier, more resilient communities. These improvements will enable our cities to meet clean water goals more cost-effectively. States, municipalities, businesses and citizens have an immediate opportunity to clean up pollution at America’s beaches by incentivizing and adopting green infrastructure approaches. The EPA can also help cities meet clean water goals and promote green infrastructure by using existing Clean Water Act authority to require sources of polluted runoff to clean up. 

All of us have a role to play in keeping our beaches safe.  Our Guide to Finding a Clean Beach will help you stay healthy and identify what you can do to keep our beaches clean.  And, if you forget to check if your favorite beach is safe for swimming before packing up, our mobile site -- – lets you search for individual beaches and learn their status.

Here's to safely enjoying the glory of our Great Lakes' beaches -- and doing your part to keep them safe and clean!