Are North Carolina beaches safe for swimming?

Media Contacts
Krista Early

New report warns about contaminated water as Congress votes on funding to prevent pollution

Environment North Carolina Research and Policy Center

Raleigh, NC –  With summer in full swing, water pollution can close North Carolina beaches or put swimmers’ health at risk. Last year, bacteria levels at 93 North Carolina beaches indicated that water was potentially unsafe for swimming there on least one day, according to the new report Safe for Swimming? by Environment North Carolina Research and Policy Center. The report comes as Congress is set to vote tomorrow on a major spending bill that includes an additional $11 billion for water infrastructure.

“Even as North Carolinians crave the fresh sea breeze and splash of waves at the beach this summer, pollution is still plaguing the places where we long to swim,” said Krista Early, clean water advocate of Environment North Carolina Research and Policy Center. “We can and must do a better job of keeping waste out of our water.”

To assess beach safety, the group examined whether fecal indicator bacteria levels exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) most protective “Beach Action Value,” which is associated with an estimated illness rate of 32 out of every 1,000 swimmers. Colington Harbour Beach in Dare County had bacteria levels above this safety threshold on 18%  percent of days tested last year.

Other North Carolina beaches where water was potentially unsafe for swimming at least one day in 2019 were Pamlico River, Ragged Point, New Bern beach, Dawson Creek beach, Pantego Creek beach, Dinah’s Landing and Vandemere Creek beach. 

Polluted runoff from roads and parking lots, overflowing or failing sewer systems, and massive factory farms are common sources of contamination that can put swimmers’ health at risk and lead authorities to close beaches or issue health advisories. Scientists estimate that 57 million instances of people getting sick each year from contact with polluted waters in the U.S.

“We need to raise the issue of water quality as a whole. There is a mixed bag of influences on our water system and we have some personal responsibility to keep our waters clean. More people create more issues as far as stormwater and pollution go, so what is it that we can and need to be doing to better control the inputs to our beautiful water systems” said Larry Baldwin, the Crystal Coast Waterkeeper. “If we can’t keep our waters clean, that will quickly turn people away from coming to this beautiful place and have an effect on our fisheries and tourism industry.”

The report recommends major investments to prevent sewage overflows and runoff pollution.  On Friday, the U.S. House of Representatives is scheduled to vote on the “minibus #1” spending package, which includes an additional $11 billion in emergency water infrastructure funding.

“Let’s make our beaches safe for swimming by investing in funding to fix our outdated sewage systems and installing green infrastructure that will keep the water clean,” said Early. “Wherever it is safe to go to the beach, let’s make sure it’s safe to go swimming in the water too.”