There's nothing quite so enjoyable as enjoying a summer day at the beach. Unfortunately, while the Environmental Protection Agency reports that 95% of public beaches in the U.S. were open in 2011, the Natural Resources Defense Council's annual Testing the Waters report paints a different picture. The number of beach closing and advisory days in 2011 reached the third-highest level in the 22-year history of its report, totaling 23,481 days.
And, perhaps more worrisome, many beaches follow the letter of the law but not the spirit, by averaging water quality tests over time and space, which can mask water pollution that could pose a human health risk.
Water pollution is most likely to present hazardous swimming conditions after heavy rains. Rainwater washes waste into storm drains, streams and rivers, and those wastes are carried to the lakes and oceans where we swim. In addition, in many communities, old and aging sewage systems routinely overflow in heavy rains, either because the systems were originally designed to carry both sewage and stormwater, or because cracks in aging pipes allows for infiltration. In either case, sewage overflows and washes, ultimately, into the places where we swim.
The longterm solutions to the problem involve improving infrastructure. Green roofs and pervious pavement, for instance, allows rainwater to seep into the ground, rather than run off after heavy rains. And upgraded sewage systems separate human wastes from rain water, avoiding overflows. When politicians discuss green jobs, these are the types of projects that could employ "green collar" workers, though they typically require big public investments of tax dollars.
In the short term, it makes sense to ask some questions before stepping in the water. Ask officials who run your beach how often the water is tested, and what those tests have revealed; typically local or state health departments are responsible for water quality monitoring. Ask how frequently the testing is done, and whether beaches are closed based on single tests, or averages. Choose to swim at beaches where water quality is tested frequently, where test results generally reveal conditions to be clean, and where swimming advisories are posted promptly if testing reveals a concern. If there's a discharge pipe nearby, or there hasn't been a test since the last rainstorm, think twice before wading in.
To find water quality tests in your area, first consult the local health department or environmental conservation department responsible for water quality. Also seek out local environmental Waterkeeper Alliance groups like Riverkeeper on the Hudson River in New York, for local data. Take the data with you with apps like the Swim Guide.
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