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Water: Beach Act

EPA Proposes More Protective Water Quality Standards for Bacteria

out of date Note: EPA no longer updates this information, but it may be useful as a reference or resource.

Fact Sheet; July 2004

EPA is taking an important step forward in fulfilling the Administration's commitment to further protect the quality of the Nation's beaches. EPA is proposing more protective health-based federal water quality standards for states and territories bordering Great Lakes or ocean waters which have not yet adopted these standards. The Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health (BEACH) Act of 2000 requires each state and territory with coastal recreation waters to adopt health-based bacteria standards that are "as protective of human health as" EPA's 1986 criteria for bacteria. The Act also requires EPA to promptly propose regulations for states and territories that fail to adopt these criteria by April 10, 2004. EPA expects to publish a final rule later in 2004, after we have received and responded to public comment. The Administration's Clean Beaches Plan includes grants to states for beach monitoring and public notification programs, technical guidance, scientific studies and Federal water quality standards to backstop state and territorial efforts where necessary.


What is EPA doing to implement this requirement of the BEACH Act?

EPA is proposing water quality standards based on EPA's 1986 recommended bacteria criteria for those states and territories that did not adopt these criteria in their standards by April 10, 2004. In letters sent on April 19, 2004, EPA informed the Commissioners of every coastal marine and Great Lakes state and territory of the impending proposal. EPA also informed them that, if their state or territory adopts water quality standards as required by the BEACH Act during EPA's regulation development process, EPA will exclude it from the rule.

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What are EPA's current water quality criteria for bacteria?

Most disease-causing microbes exist at very low levels and are difficult and expensive to detect. Indicator organisms have been used for over a century to help identify where fecal contamination has occurred, and therefore, where disease-causing microbes may be present. EPA's currently recommended water quality criteria for bacteria use are the indicator organisms E. coli and enterococci. These organisms generally do not cause illness directly, but have characteristics that make them good indicators that fecal contamination has occurred and that harmful pathogens may be in the water.

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Why did EPA recommend these criteria?

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, EPA conducted public health studies evaluating the use of several organisms as possible indicators, including fecal coliforms, E. coli, and enterococci. These studies showed that fecal coliforms, which were then being used for water quality criteria, were not reliable predictors of human illness. That is, EPA did not find a strong statistical relationship between the amount of fecal coliforms in the water and the likelihood of people getting sick. In contrast, 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, EPA recommended in 1986 the use of E. coli for fresh recreational waters and enterococci for fresh and marine recreational waters.

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Which states and territories have adopted EPA's criteria?

Of the 35 states and territories that have coastal or Great Lakes recreational waters, ten have adopted EPA's recommended criteria for all their coastal recreation waters (Alabama, American Samoa, Connecticut, Guam, Indiana, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Texas, and Virginia), five have adopted the criteria for some of their coastal recreation waters (California, Hawaii, Maine, Ohio, and Puerto Rico), and 17 states are in the process of adopting this criteria (Alaska, Northern Mariana Islands, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii (for additional waters), Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Virgin Islands, and Wisconsin). At the time of issuance of this proposal, four states have not yet moved forward to adopt EPA's recommended criteria (Georgia, Louisiana, Oregon, and Washington).

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My state hasn't adopted EPA's criteria and I am going to the beach. Is my beach safe?

The best way to obtain information about the safety of a beach is to contact local public health officials. Officials at the state and local level make public health decisions about beach use, and in many cases are in fact monitoring for E. coli or enterococci and making decisions regarding beach safety--even though the state may not yet have adopted these criteria into their water quality standards.

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What is EPA doing to help States better protect their recreational waters?

EPA works collaboratively with States in a number of ways. EPA has annually awarded $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 recreational waters. In addition, EPA funds beach-related research and provides technical support to States.

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What are coastal recreation waters?

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.

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What will happen if a state or territory adopts the criteria after the final rule?

When a state or territory adopts new standards as protective of human health as EPA's 1986 bacteria criteria, EPA will approve those standards and withdraw the Federal criteria. Further, EPA is also proposing to make the new state standards effective as quickly as possible by expediting the EPA approval process.

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What are water quality standards?

Water quality standards define the goal for a water body by designating its uses, setting criteria to protect those uses, and establishing provisions to protect water quality from pollutants. Water quality standards are the foundation of the pollutant control program mandated by the Clean Water Act.

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For More Information

For more information on the proposed rulemaking, please contact Lars Wilcut at 202-566–0447 (wilcut.lars@epa.gov). See also the Clean Beaches Plan website. You can learn more about Water Quality Standards and EPA's Beaches Program. Submit comments using E-Dockets. Click on "Quick Search" and type in OW-2004-0010 into the search field.

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