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Water: Beach Act

Nationwide Bacteria Standards Protect Swimmers at Beaches

Fact Sheet; November 2004

We are taking an important step forward in fulfilling the Administration's commitment to further protect the quality of the nation's beaches. The November 8th final rule established more protective health-based federal bacteria standards for those states and territories bordering Great Lakes or ocean waters that have not yet adopted standards in accordance with the BEACH Act of 2000. These federal water quality standards are part of the Administration's Clean Beaches Plan, which also includes grants to states and territories for beach monitoring and public notification programs, technical guidance, and scientific studies.


Background

The BEACH Act
The Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health (BEACH) Act of 2000 requires each state and territory with coastal recreation waters to adopt into their water quality standards by April 10, 2004, bacteria criteria that are "as protective of human health as" our 1986 bacteria criteria (PDF) (24 pp, 370K, About PDF). The BEACH Act defines coastal recreation waters as the Great Lakes and coastal waters (including coastal estuaries) that states, territories, and authorized tribes officially recognize (or "designate") for swimming, bathing, surfing, or similar activities in the water.

The Bacteria Criteria
Most disease-causing microbes exist in very small amounts and are difficult and expensive to find in water samples. "Indicator organisms" have been used for more than a century to help identify where fecal contamination has occurred and, therefore, where disease-causing microbes may be present. These organisms generally do not cause illness themselves. They do have characteristics that make them good indicators that fecal contamination has occurred and that harmful pathogens may be in the water.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, we conducted public health studies evaluating several organisms as possible indicators, including fecal coliforms, E. coli, and enterococci. The studies showed that enterococci was a very good predictor of illness in all waters, and E. coli was a very good predictor in fresh waters. As a result, we recommended in 1986 the use of E. coli for fresh recreation waters (criteria set at 126/100mL) and enterococci for fresh and marine recreation waters (criteria set at 33/100mL in freshwater and 35/100mL in marine water). These recommendations replaced our previously recommended bacteria criteria for fecal coliform of 200/100mL.

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What this rule does

Through this final rule, we are establishing federal standards for those states and territories with coastal recreation waters that have not yet adopted bacteria criteria as protective of health as our 1986 criteria into their water quality standards. Of the 35 states and territories that have coastal or Great Lakes recreation waters, 14 have adopted criteria as protective of health as our recommended criteria for all their coastal recreation waters, 5 have adopted criteria as protective as our recommended criteria for some of their coastal recreation waters, and 13 states are in the process of adopting protective criteria. When this final rule was issued, three states had not yet started adopting our recommended criteria (Georgia, Louisiana, and Oregon). When a state or territory adopts criteria as protective of human health as our 1986 bacteria criteria into their standars, we will approve those standards and withdraw the federal standards for that state or territory.

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States and territories that have adopted criteria "as protective as" our recommended criteria into their water quality standards:

  • Alabama
  • American Samoa
  • Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands
  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • Guam
  • Indiana
  • Michigan
  • New Hampshire
  • New Jersey
  • South Carolina
  • Texas
  • Virginia
  • Washington

States and territories that have adopted criteria " as protective as" our recommended criteria into their water quality standards for some of their coastal recreation waters:

  • California
  • Hawaii
  • Maine
  • Ohio
  • Puerto Rico

States and territories in the process of adopting criteria "as protective as" our recommended criteria into their water quality standards:

  • Alaska
  • Florida
  • Illinois
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • Minnesota
  • Mississippi
  • New York
  • North Carolina
  • Pennsylvania
  • Rhode Island
  • Virgin Islands
  • Wisconsin

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Other EPA and state efforts to protect recreation waters

We work with states and territories in a number of ways. Every year since 2001, we have awarded about $10 million in grants to eligible states and territories to develop and implement beach water quality monitoring and notification programs in coastal and Great Lakes recreation waters. We also fund beach-related research and provide technical support to states and territories. We are now developing new water quality criteria for the protection of swimmers, based on new health studies that the Agency is conducting.

How to find out whether a particular beach is safe

The best way to find out about the safety of a beach is to contact the local public health officials who manage the beach. State and local officials make public health decisions about beach use. In many cases, they monitor for E. coli or enterococci to determine beach safety—even though the state may not have yet adopted these criteria into their water quality standards.

Local beach contacts

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For More Information

For more information on the final rulemaking, please contact Lars Wilcut at 202-566-0447 (wilcut.lars@epa.gov).

Other web resources

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