Safe for Swimming?

Water Quality at Our Beaches
Released by: Environment America Research and Policy Center and Frontier Group

The Clean Water Act, adopted in 1972, set the goal of making all of our waterways safe for swimming. Nearly a half-century later, Americans visiting their favorite beach are still met all too often by advisories warning that the water is unsafe for swimming. And each year, millions of Americans are sickened by swimming in contaminated water.

An analysis of fecal indicator bacteria sampling data from beaches in 29 coastal and Great Lakes states and Puerto Rico reveals that 386 beaches – nearly one of every eight surveyed – were potentially unsafe on at least 25 percent of the days that sampling took place last year. More than half of all the 3,172 beaches reviewed were potentially unsafe for swimming on at least one day. Beaches were considered potentially unsafe if fecal indicator bacteria levels exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “Beach Action Value” associated with an estimated illness rate of 32 out of every 1,000 swimmers. 

To protect our health at the beach, policymakers should undertake efforts to prevent fecal pollution, including deploying natural and green infrastructure to absorb stormwater.

Fecal contamination makes beaches unsafe for swimming. Human contact with contaminated water can result in gastrointestinal illness as well as respiratory disease, ear and eye infection and skin rash. Each year in the U.S., swimmers in oceans, lakes, rivers and ponds suffer from an estimated 57 million cases of recreational waterborne illness.

Our beaches are at risk. Runoff from paved surfaces, overflows from aging sewage systems, and manure from industrial livestock operations all threaten the waters where Americans swim. These pollution threats are getting worse with climate change, as more extreme precipitation events bring heavy flows of stormwater.

  • Sprawling development has created more impervious surfaces that cause runoff pollution and has destroyed natural areas like wetlands that protect beaches from contamination. From 1996 to 2010, U.S. coastal regions added 3.6 million acres of development, while losing 982,000 acres of wetland and millions of acres of forest.

  • America’s sewage infrastructure is deteriorating and outdated. Many communities, particularly around the Great Lakes, still use “combined sewers” that were designed to discharge sewage directly to waterways during heavy rainfall. Sanitary sewers, which are designed to carry sewage alone, can also spill dangerous sewage if they are not properly maintained, and overflow as many as 75,000 times each year in the U.S.

  • The rise of factory farms has resulted in large concentrations of livestock manure that cannot be stored safely and is often overapplied to crops. All too often, rainfall washes excess manure from cropland into our waterways where it can put swimmers’ health at risk. Animal manure also can contain pathogens that are resistant to antibiotics, creating added risk to public health.

Of more than 3,000 beaches sampled for bacteria across the country in 2019, 386 were potentially unsafe for swimming on at least 25% of days that testing took place.

  • As of May 2020, sampling data for 2019 from 3,172 beaches in 29 coastal and Great Lakes states and Puerto Rico was available through the National Water Quality Monitoring Council’s Water Quality Portal. 

  • Of those beaches, 1,793 had bacteria levels indicating potentially unsafe levels of fecal contamination for swimming on at least one day, and 386 were potentially unsafe on at least 25 percent of the days that sampling took place.

  • Swimmers could also be at risk at additional beaches where no bacterial testing was conducted or available through the Water Quality Portal.

Figure ES-1. Average percentage of potentially unsafe beach days in 2019 by county
“Average percentage” represents the average of the percentage of potentially unsafe days at each beach within a county.

A close up of a map Description automatically generated

Bacteria testing of ocean and Great Lakes beaches in every region of the country revealed days of potentially unsafe fecal contamination in 2019.

  • Among East Coast beaches, 928 beaches, or 51% of the 1,820 beaches tested, were potentially unsafe for at least one day in 2019. 172 beaches, 9% of those tested, were potentially unsafe on at least 25% of the days that testing took place.

  • Among Great Lakes beaches, 284 beaches, or 59% of the 484 beaches tested, were potentially unsafe for at least one day in 2019. 55 beaches, 11% of those tested, were potentially unsafe on at least 25% of the days that testing took place.

  • Among Gulf Coast beaches, 223 beaches, or 84% of the 266 beaches tested, were potentially unsafe for at least one day in 2019. 65 beaches, 24% of those tested, were potentially unsafe on at least 25% of the days that testing took place.

  • Among West Coast beaches, 258 beaches, or 75% of the 346 beaches tested, were potentially unsafe for at least one day in 2019. 79 beaches, 23% of those tested, were potentially unsafe on at least 25% of the days that testing took place.

In every coastal and Great Lakes state and Puerto Rico, sampling revealed potentially unsafe levels of contamination in 2019. (The figures below are based on U.S. EPA’s Beach Action Value. Many states use other thresholds for beach closure and advisory decisions. Therefore, results presented in this report may differ from state reports on beach water quality. See Methodology for details.) 

  • Alabama: In 2019, 15 of 25 beaches tested were potentially unsafe for at least one day. Fairhope Public Beach in Baldwin County tested as potentially unsafe for 12 days, more days than any other beach in the state.

  • California: In 2019, 202 of 253 beaches tested were potentially unsafe for at least one day. Inner Cabrillo Beach in Los Angeles County tested as potentially unsafe for 150 days, more days than any other beach in the state.

  • Connecticut: In 2019, 44 of 70 beaches tested were potentially unsafe for at least one day. Shady Beach in Fairfield County tested as potentially unsafe for 10 days, more days than any other beach in the state.

  • Delaware: In 2019, 14 of 23 beaches tested were potentially unsafe for at least one day. Slaughter Beach in Sussex County tested as potentially unsafe for 12 days, more days than any other beach in the state.

  • Florida: In 2019, 187 of 261 beaches tested were potentially unsafe for at least one day. South Beach (Key West) in Monroe County tested as potentially unsafe for 22 days, more days than any other beach in the state.

  • Georgia: In 2019, 19 of 26 beaches tested were potentially unsafe for at least one day. St. Simons Island Lighthouse Beach in Glynn County tested as potentially unsafe for 9 days, more days than any other beach in the state.

  • Hawaii: In 2019, 76 of 221 beaches tested were potentially unsafe for at least one day. Kuliouou Beach in Honolulu County tested as potentially unsafe for 10 days, more days than any other beach in the state.

  • Illinois: In 2019, 19 of 19 beaches tested were potentially unsafe for at least one day. 63rd Street Beach in Cook County tested as potentially unsafe for 19 days, more days than any other beach in the state.

  • Indiana: In 2019, 19 of 23 beaches tested were potentially unsafe for at least one day. Jeorse Park Beach I in Lake County tested as potentially unsafe for 28 days, more days than any other beach in the state.

  • Louisiana: In 2019, 23 of 23 beaches tested were potentially unsafe for at least one day. Lake Charles North Beach in Calcasieu Parish tested as potentially unsafe for 20 days, more days than any other beach in the state.

  • Maine: In 2019, 31 of 63 beaches tested were potentially unsafe for at least one day. Goose Rocks Beach in York County tested as potentially unsafe for 12 days, more days than any other beach in the state.

  • Maryland: In 2019, 41 of 67 beaches tested were potentially unsafe for at least one day. Ocean City Beach 3 in Worcester County tested as potentially unsafe for 8 days, more days than any other beach in the state.

  • Massachusetts: In 2019, 257 of 559 beaches tested were potentially unsafe for at least one day. Tenean Beach in Suffolk County tested as potentially unsafe for 44 days, more days than any other beach in the state.

  • Michigan: In 2019, 78 of 196 beaches tested were potentially unsafe for at least one day. South Linwood Beach Township Park in Bay County tested as potentially unsafe for 13 days, more days than any other beach in the state.

  • Minnesota: In 2019, 13 of 35 beaches tested were potentially unsafe for at least one day. Park Point Sky Harbor Parking Lot Beach in St. Louis County tested as potentially unsafe for 9 days, more days than any other beach in the state.

  • Mississippi: In 2019, 21 of 21 beaches tested were potentially unsafe for at least one day. Pass Christian West Beach in Harrison County tested as potentially unsafe for 44 days, more days than any other beach in the state.

  • New Hampshire: In 2019, 6 of 16 beaches tested were potentially unsafe for at least one day. North Hampton State Beach in Rockingham County tested as potentially unsafe for 7 days, more days than any other beach in the state.

  • New Jersey: In 2019, 73 of 222 beaches tested were potentially unsafe for at least one day. Two beaches – Beachwood Beach West in Ocean County and Barnegat Light Bay Beach in Ocean County – tested as potentially unsafe for 9 days, more than any other beaches in the state.

  • New York: In 2019, 219 of 350 beaches tested were potentially unsafe for at least one day. Tanner Park in Suffolk County on Long Island tested as potentially unsafe for 56 days, more days than any other beach in the state.

  • North Carolina: In 2019, 93 of 209 beaches tested were potentially unsafe for at least one day. Colington Harbour Beach in Dare County tested as potentially unsafe for 6 days, more days than any other beach in the state.

  • Ohio: In 2019, 54 of 54 beaches tested were potentially unsafe for at least one day. Maumee Bay State Park (Inland) in Lucas County tested as potentially unsafe for 38 days, more days than any other beach in the state.

  • Oregon: In 2019, 18 of 20 beaches tested were potentially unsafe for at least one day. Seal Rock State Recreation Site in Lincoln County tested as potentially unsafe for 13 days, more days than any other beach in the state.

  • Pennsylvania: In 2019, 8 of 9 beaches tested were potentially unsafe for at least one day. Erie Beach 11 in Erie County tested as potentially unsafe for 9 days, more days than any other beach in the state.

  • Puerto Rico: In 2019, 24 of 35 beaches tested were potentially unsafe for at least one day. Tropical Beach in Naguabo Municipio tested as potentially unsafe for 15 days, more days than any other beach in the state.

  • Rhode Island: In 2019, 44 of 65 beaches tested were potentially unsafe for at least one day. Easton’s Beach in Newport County tested as potentially unsafe for 14 days, more days than any other beach in the state.

  • South Carolina: In 2019, 12 of 23 beaches tested were potentially unsafe for at least one day. Myrtle Beach in Horry County tested as potentially unsafe for 41 days, more days than any other beach in the state.

  • Texas: In 2019, 55 of 61 beaches tested were potentially unsafe for at least one day. Sargent Beach in Matagorda County tested as potentially unsafe for 96 days, more days than any other beach in the state.

  • Virginia: In 2019, 29 of 47 beaches tested were potentially unsafe for at least one day. Hilton Beach in the city of Newport News tested as potentially unsafe for 8 days, more days than any other beach in the state.

  • Washington: In 2019, 38 of 73 beaches tested were potentially unsafe for at least one day. Dakwas Park Beach, Neah Bay in Clallam County tested as potentially unsafe for 10 days, more days than any other beach in the state.

  • Wisconsin: In 2019, 61 of 103 beaches tested were potentially unsafe for at least one day. South Shore Beach in Milwaukee County tested as potentially unsafe for 19 days, more days than any other beach in the state.

To ensure that all of our beaches are safe for swimming, policymakers should work to protect beaches from runoff and sewage pollution – including by stopping pollution at its source, and by protecting natural areas. Solutions include:

  • Dramatically increasing funding to fix sewage systems and prevent runoff pollution through natural and green infrastructure, including rain barrels, permeable pavement and green roofs.

  • Protecting wetlands, which filter out pollutants like bacteria.

  • Enacting moratoriums on new or expanded industrial-scale livestock operations, particularly in areas that threaten our beaches and other waterways.

Policymakers should also ensure that swimmers are presented with the best-possible information to make decisions regarding their health. Officials should expand funding for beach testing, to ensure adequate testing at all beaches. States should use EPA’s most protective “Beach Action Value” bacteria standard for making beach advisory decisions and should work to implement same-day bacteria testing and warning systems.