The sun is setting on summer vacation and nobody trying to squeeze in one last beach day with the kids wants to think much about what’s in the water. A recent report suggests we’d all do well to spend more time considering what’s happening to the public waterfront and our role in polluting it.
The report analyzing water samples taken at more than 4,500 beaches around the country last year found more than half saw at least one day when levels of fecal contamination were greater than what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency deems safe for swimming. At 12 percent of the beaches, bacteria reached unhealthy levels one in every four days.
The problem wasn’t quite as persistent on the East Coast as it was elsewhere in country, according to the analysis by the Frontier Group and Environment America Research and Policy Center. But it’s all relative. None of us wants to swim in the water any day when levels of fecal bacteria -- which can lead to rashes, respiratory problems and gastrointestinal illness -- is at unsafe levels.
Unfortunately the report doesn’t detail results for every beach tested and every sample taken, we assume because of the sheer volume of data. But we can draw inferences. In Massachusetts, 223 of 583 sites sampled showed unhealthy levels of bacteria on at least one day last summer. The most persistently troubled beach in the state was in Nahant, according to the report, where bacteria levels were elevated 39 of 92 days.
So, if you went to a beach in Massachusetts last summer, odds are better than 1 in 3 that you visited one where fecal bacteria reached problem levels on at least one day. The more beaches you visited, and the more often you went, the better the chances that you, your friends or family swam in foul water.
And there’s no reason to believe that much changed from one summer to the next.
(You fared slightly better swimming in New Hampshire, where 15 of 47 beaches had at least one bad day with elevated levels of fecal bacteria last summer. The state beach in North Hampton was the most troubled, with five days of elevated samples out of 26 when the water was measured.)
That our beaches are so polluted, so often, should inspire more outrage than this report did. It’s been almost five decades since the Clean Water Act was passed, over President Richard Nixon’s veto, back when Roberta Flack topped the Billboard Top 100 and a gallon of regular gas cost 36 cents. Swimming at a polluted beach should also be something in our collective, far-off memory.
“It’s hard to believe that 47 years after we passed the Clean Water Act that we are still concerned with poop in the water when people want to go swimming,” John Rumpler, director of the clean water program for the Environment America center, told USA Today.
That it remains a festering problem is partly the fault of sewage spills and antique public works. Combined sewer and stormwater systems that overflow into the Merrimack River and Gloucester Harbor, among other places in Massachusetts, are a major part of the problem. The solution is expensive and warrants far more public attention than it gets.
Another piece of the problem is storm water, in general, especially as it crosses lawns and parks littered with pet and wildlife waste, then flows through streams, storm drains and rivers, down to the ocean and to your favorite beach. It’s a good argument for local ordinances that force people to to pick up after their pets. Regardless of what cities or towns say, pet owners should do the right (and sanitary) thing by cleaning up after their dogs.
Again, none of this is the kind of thing that people want to think about when they’re visiting the beach and more focused on sand, sun tans and fried clams. But it’s a problem that requires year round attention and vigilance from all of us, lest anyone waste the last days of summer vacation laid up with stomach trouble.