Pathogens pose risk at 87 North Carolina beaches

Media Contacts
Krista Early

Water pollution persists as Congress considers infrastructure funding

Environment North Carolina Research and Policy Center

You can watch a video of our press conference here

[RALEIGH, NC]– With North Carolinians returning to local beaches this summer, a new report warns that more work is needed to ensure that all waters are safe for swimming. In 2020, 87 North Carolina beaches were potentially unsafe for swimming on at least one day and 7 of those beaches were unsafe on at least 25% of the days they were tested according to Safe for Swimming?, Environment North Carolina Research and Policy Center’s annual analysis of bacteria testing.  The report comes as Congress considers investments in water infrastructure.

“Especially with the 4th of July right around the corner, we are ready, now more than ever, to get outside and back to enjoying the fresh sea breeze and waves at the beach. Unfortunately, pollution is still plaguing too many of the places where we swim,” said Krista Early, Clean Water Advocate of Environment North Carolina Research and Policy Center. “Now is the time to fix our water infrastructure and stop the flow of pathogens to our beaches.”

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.  Pamlico River at the railroad trestle in Beaufort County had bacteria levels above this safety threshold on 59 percent of days tested last year.

Other North Carolina beaches found potentially unsafe for swimming at least once in 2020 were Pamlico River at Havens Gardens Park, Holden Beach, Beach by Vandemere Creek, Jockey’s Ridge Beach, Beach at Pantego Creek, Beach at Union Point, Carolina Beach, Hancock Creek and Lennoxville Boat Ramp in Beaufort. 

“At the coast we are feeling the impact of all that runs downstream and towards the ocean. We have a wide range of pollutants that end up in our waterways and these water quality concerns impact our communities through health indicators, habitat loss, tourism and both commercial and recreational fishing.  Through the work of Coastal Carolina Riverwatch, we have formed an industry working group to ensure that the voices of coastal fishing communities are being heard on what more needs to be done to improve water quality” said Lisa Rider, Executive Director of Coastal Carolina Riverwatch. 

Polluted runoff and sewage overflows are common sources of contamination that can put swimmers’ health at risk and lead authorities to close beaches or issue health advisories. Scientists estimate 57 million instances of people getting sick each year in the U.S. from swimming in oceans, lakes, rivers and ponds. This includes cases of acute gastrointestinal illness.

“Sound River’s Summer Swim Guide program works to monitor recreational sites during summer months for E.Coli bacteria which are then compared to EPA’s recreational water quality standard and then shared widely with the public to let them know if the waters are safe. No one should have to swim in waters that are unsafe. ”said Jill Howell, the Pamlico-Tar Riverkeeper. 

The “Safe for Swimming?” report recommends major investments to prevent sewage overflows and runoff pollution.  

The report foreshadowed today’s passage of the Water Quality Protection Act by the U.S. House of Representatives. The bill was included in a package that combined several bills under the umbrella of the INVEST in America Act. The bill is a bold water infrastructure package that includes 40 billion dollars for clean water infrastructure with 15% of that funding dedicated for green projects; including nature-based solutions that prevent runoff pollution from flowing into our rivers, lakes, and streams.