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Water: Beaches

Basic Information

Beaches are an important part of American life. We take almost two billion trips to the beach and spend billions of dollars in beach communities every year. However, people who swim at the beach sometimes get sick because the water is polluted. In addition, beaches that aren’t well protected or are overused can be altered or destroyed. The good news is that we can all help protect people’s health and our beaches. EPA created this web site to make it easy to find information about beaches, including the relationship between beaches and the environment.

What is a beach? | What threatens our beaches?

What is a beach?

A beach is the sandy, pebbly, or rocky shore of a body of water. Beach types vary widely, especially depending on where they are. When most of us think of a beach, we picture sandy ocean beaches with waves crashing, wind blowing, and seagulls flying overhead. But beaches in the United States are also found in urban areas, on estuaries and lagoons, and on lakes and rivers.

Beaches provide many recreational opportunities for millions of people. Boating, fishing, swimming, walking, beachcombing, bird-watching, and sunbathing are among the common activities beachgoers enjoy. Beaches also provide some protection to residents living near the ocean by acting as a buffer against the high winds and waves of powerful storms or rough seas.

A beach is also a sensitive environment that supports a variety of plants and animals.

What threatens our beaches?

Overuse of the beach can lead to the gradual degradation of habitat. Dunes can be eroded and vegetation destroyed by too much foot traffic. Excessive boat traffic too close to the shoreline can cause so much wave action that it erodes the beach. Trash dumped from boats can wash up onto the beach, posing a threat to both humans and marine animals. When people do not dispose of boat sewage properly or when storms cause sewer overflows, pathogens and nutrients can enter the water, degrading water quality and creating unsafe conditions for recreation.

Pollution of coastal environments limits our ability to use beaches for economic, recreational, and aesthetic purposes. Pollution can result from things happening on the beach itself or from within the coastal watersheds that drain to the beach. Marine debris, like litter or pet waste left on the beach comes from events at the beach. Problems resulting from events farther away include:

  • algae blooms
  • poor water quality from excessive nutrients created when fertilizers drain from lawns or agricultural fields
  • litter washed into storm drains that eventually reaches the beach through stormwater runoff after rainfall.
  • bacteria and other pathogens from treatment plant malfunctions and sewer system overflows.
  • pollutants that can make it unsafe to eat the fish or shellfish caught at the beach.
  • trash or boat waste washed to the beach from the ocean.

Most often, beaches are closed or signs are posted warning people of health hazards when samples taken of the water indicate the presence of fecal contamination from sewage, a problem that can cause both common and serious illnesses. People swimming in water contaminated with these types of pathogens can contract diseases of the gastrointestinal tract, eyes, ears, skin, and upper respiratory tract.  When monitoring results show levels of concern, the state or local government issues a beach advisory or closure notice until further sampling shows that the water quality is meeting the applicable standards. To help minimize beachgoers' risk of exposure to pathogens in beachwaters, EPA is helping communities build and properly operate sewage treatment plants, working to reduce overflows as much as possible, and working with the U.S. Coast Guard to reduce discharges from boats and larger ships.

You’ll find a lot of information on this web site about EPA’s knowledge of and efforts to protect beaches. You’ll also find links a lot of to other sources of information that will help you decide when and where to go to the beach, and how to safely enjoy your stay.

Learn more about illnesses related to beaches and how to protect yourself

Learn more about the pollution found at beaches

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