Are Virginia beaches safe for swimming?

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

Environment Virginia Research & Policy Center

[Richmond, Va] – With summer in full swing, water pollution can close Virginia beaches or put swimmers’ health at risk. Last year, bacteria levels at 29 Virginia beaches indicated that water was potentially unsafe for swimming there on least one day, according to the new report Safe for Swimming? by Environment Virginia 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 Virginians 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 Elly Boehmer, Environment Virginia Research and Policy Center state director. “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.  Hilton Beach in Newport News County had bacteria levels above this safety threshold on 53 percent of days tested last year.

Other Virginia beaches found potentially unsafe for swimming at least once in 2019 were King/Lincoln Park, Fairview Beach, Anderson’s Beach, Huntington Beach, Captains Quarters, Ocean View Park, Kiptopeke State Park and Town of Cape Charles Public Beach.

Polluted runoff from roads and parking lots, overflowing or failing sewer systems, and 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.

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 building the infrastructure that will keep the water clean,” said Boehmer “Wherever it is safe to go to the beach, let’s make sure it’s safe to go swimming in the water too.”