The fact that this type of monitoring happens up and down our nation’s coasts, and all along the shores of the Great Lakes, is no accident. It’s the result of efforts at local and state levels, as well as federal legislation. In 2000, after finding that “increased population and urbanization” in coastal areas had “contributed to the decline in the environmental quality of coastal waters,” Congress passed the Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act - the BEACH Act.
The BEACH Act allowed EPA to start providing grants for water quality monitoring, giving more communities the resources they need — nearly $177 million since 2002 — to monitor water quality and keep beachgoers safe. It also required EPA to create a national database of water quality data, which lives on today as a website called BEACON. BEACON makes it easy for anyone to get detailed data for their favorite beach using its map search tool. For example, I can get data going back to 2013 for my go-to summer spot, Revere Beach north of Boston. (Many states also provide their own similar tools, often with more up-to-date info.)
All this monitoring and data bring us important benefits. State and local governments use their monitoring to find when water is unsafe, and then issue advisories or close beaches when there’s a problem. The data can also be aggregated to tell a larger story about water quality in the U.S. Our new report is one example, but the EPA releases its own research, too. And the data is used by researchers to hone and improve criteria to ensure that guidelines for water safety are based on the best possible science.
But perhaps most importantly, the collection of this data gives communities the information they need to find solutions. We highlight a few such instances in the report. In the case of the Wilson River in Oregon, for example, water quality monitoring showed high bacteria levels, alerting state and local researchers to a problem. They then used additional research, including bacterial source tracking, to figure out that much of the pollution was coming from local dairy farms. Those studies led to the creation of new programs designed to reduce agricultural pollution — and ultimately led to improvements in water quality, both for the river and for the downstream Tillamook Bay.
In the case of beach monitoring, there’s still plenty of room for improvement, and need for additional funding. Today, the vast majority of beaches are monitored using methods that can take 24 hours to get results, rather than modern rapid-testing systems. And there are also thousands of beach sites around the country with no monitoring at all. Still, our national beach monitoring effort is something to be appreciated, and emulated.
Nobody likes unsafe water at their favorite beach. But it’s better to know about problems than to unnecessarily put our health at risk. Sustaining and improving environmental monitoring programs, including those at the beaches we love, is critical for understanding the issues that affect our health and environment on a daily basis. Only once we understand them, can we actually go out and fix them.