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Water: Beaches

Frequently Asked Questions

Why did EPA establish the BEACH Program?

EPA initiated the Beaches Environmental Assessment, Closure, and Health (BEACH) Program in response to the growing concern about public health risks posed by polluted bathing beaches. Scientific evidence documenting the rise of infectious diseases caused by microbial organisms in recreational waters continues to grow. For example, a recent epidemiological study in Santa Monica Bay, Califormia, documented an increased risk of illness associated with swimming near storm drains. The number of beach closures reported every year is also on the rise. To counteract this growing problem and to ensure public notification when they may be at risk of illness and disease, we have established this national program to protect public health at our nation's beaches.

What are the major components of the BEACH Program?

The BEACH Program will focus on the following five areas to meet the program goals of improving public health and environmental protection programs for beach goers and providing the public with information about the quality of their beach water:

Strengthening beach standards and testing. EPA is encouraging states and tribes to adopt updated water quality criteria for E. coli and/or enterococcus bacteria into their water quality standards. The Agency is also working with states, tribes, and local governments to strengthen local beach health monitoring efforts and procedures to achieve these standards by providing technical guidance and training on new test methods and predictive models. You can view EPA's summary report of state bacterial water quality standards for recreational waters.

Providing faster laboratory test methods. EPA has developed and is making available a new laboratory test method for enterococcus bacteria, indicator organisms for fecal contamination. This improved test method produces results in 24 hours rather than the 48 hours required for existing test methods. EPA will provide technical assistance to state and private laboratories to implement this new method. Use of this method can result in earlier notification to the public about health hazards at beaches.

Predicting pollution. EPA is working with other agencies at all levels of government to develop and validate models to predict where and when beach pollution is likely to occur. These models will assist public health officials in determining when warnings may be necessary to alert beach goers of potential problems during and immediately following a rain storm or other pollution event. EPA will provide copies of the models and training in their use when they become available.

Investing in health and methods research. EPA plans to sponsor research to improve the scientific foundation in support of local, state, and tribal actions to protect public health at bathing beaches. Discussions are underway to identify critical areas of research that will likely include development and validation of new methods and indicators to assess waterborne pathogens.

Informing the public. The BEACH Program is improving public access to information about the quality of the water at their beaches and health risks associated with swimming in polluted water. EPA has created a new website on the Internet, called "Beach Watch," which is an online directory of information about the water quality at our nation's beaches, local protection programs, and other beach-related programs. Our Beaches website will be updated as new information becomes available.

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What else is EPA doing to make our beaches safer?

In addition to the activities underway or planned for the BEACH Program, EPA is involved in a number of activities with other programs to make our waters cleaner and safer for swimming. For example:
  • We continue to work with communities to help build and properly operate their sewage treatment plants. Between 1972 and 1996, EPA awarded approximately $70 billion to municipalities to assist in the construction and improvement of wastewater treatment plants. Today, sophisticated sewage systems serve over 85% of the U.S. population.
  • We are working to end sewage overflows in communities with outdated sewer systems. In 1994 we successfully negotiated a national policy for managing combined sewer overflows (CSOs) that helps communities eliminate or minimize the discharge of untreated or partially treated sewage in practical, cost-effective ways. We also convened a Sanitary Sewer Overflow (SSO) Federal Advisory Subcommittee that considers SSO policy issues and provides recommendations for regulatory and nonregulatory actions to reduce SSOs nationally.
  • We are continuing to implement a national storm water program to reduce urban runoff. Runoff from urban areas can carry a variety of pollutants, including bacteria and viruses. Cities and industries are now required to control storm water runoff so that local waters receive greater protection from pollution.
  • The 1990 amendments to the Coastal Zone Management Act focused on the need for controlling polluted runoff in coastal areas and provided stronger approaches to meet this need. We continue to help the States implement these approaches and achieve more effective runoff control.
  • We also work with the Coast Guard to improve sewage and other waste disposal from recreational boats and other vessels.

Each of these actions are focused on preventing the pollution that can make our waters unsafe. Preventing pollution has been and will continue to be our top priority in ensuring safe waters for swimming and other recreational activities.

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What is EPA's role in setting bacteriological water quality standards for swimming safety?

Section 303(c) of the Clean Water Act (CWA) provides the statutory basis for water quality standards. It is primarily a state program subject to EPA oversight to maintain compliance with CWA requirements. EPA's regulations implementing this section require states to adopt sufficient criteria and monitoring in their standards to protect designated uses.

EPA has developed ambient water quality criteria for bacteria for use by the states and tribes in establishing standards for recreational waters. These criteria were last updated in 1986. To date, only about 20% of the states have updated their standards based on these revisions.

EPA is actively promoting its goal of ensuring that all states and tribes update their bathing beach standards. In a recent letter to the states and tribes, EPA strongly encouraged them to adopt the updated E. coli/enterococcus standards. We are also coordinating with our regional offices to direct attention to this issue during the triennial review process for water quality standards.

Contact us if you have any questions.

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