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BWTF Frequently Asked Questions

October 22 2009 | Blue Water Task Force,
by Mara Dias

1. What is the Blue Water Task Force?

The Blue Water Task Force (BWTF) is a chapter-based, water quality monitoring program, run by volunteers. Most chapters test the water at their favorite beaches, but some chapters also sample upstream in their watersheds if there are freshwater areas important for recreation or if they are investigating the sources of beach water pollution.

2. What are we testing for?

The methods used by the BWTF measure the amount of indicator bacteria in a water sample. E. coli (not the same species that causes food poisoning) is measured in freshwater samples, and Enterococcus bacteria are measured in marine water to determine the health risk of exposure to these waters. The water quality standard mandated by the EPA to open and close beaches in the U.S. is based on these bacteria.

While not harmful on their own account, E. coli and Enterococcus are both types of fecal bacteria that can indicate the presence of more dangerous microorganisms and viruses. Fecal bacteria are found primarily in the intestinal tracts of mammals and birds, and are released into the environment through human and animal feces.

Fecal pollution at beaches could come from pets and wildlife, human sewage leaks or spills, and storm water runoff (especially in locations where sanitary sewers and storm sewers are combined). If the levels of indicator bacteria are high, then there are likely to also be other contaminants in the water found in human or animal feces that could make people sick, generally with skin rashes or gastro-intestinal symptoms.

Read more about indicator bacteria and why we test for them in Surfrider’s Coastal A-Z or on the University of Rhode Island Watershed Watch website .

3. Why are chapters testing beach water?

A) To provide information on the safety of swimming and surfing at the beaches in their community.

Surfrider volunteers can collect samples from beaches that are not covered by city or state monitoring programs, or during times when no one else is testing, i.e. during the off-peak winter season. Some chapters sample the same beaches as their local agencies, but stagger their sampling times. For instance if the Department of Health samples only on Mondays, then the chapter collects samples on Thursday or Friday.

You can read about how other chapters are using their BWTF programs to fill-in information gaps on the BWTF blog.

B) Education

Many BWTF programs are based in high schools and expose students and other youth groups to environmental science and local water quality and pollution issues. Participating in water testing programs is also educational for adult volunteers.

C) Motivate a movement of care for our coasts

BWTF volunteers often become advocates for the beaches and watersheds they are monitoring and are inspired to make changes at their schools, homes and businesses to decrease their impact on local waterways. The BWTF youth volunteers in Newport, Oregon clearly demonstrate this ethic and are working to promote coastal stewardship in their community.

D) Increase public awareness of local water quality issues

BWTF volunteers let their communities know about the areas where pollution is detected and bring their concerns to their local officials and environmental agencies.

E) Solve water quality problems, prevent pollution

BWTF volunteers often try to determine what is causing the pollution when their water samples consistently test high for bacteria. Many chapters bring their data to local officials when water quality issues are discovered, press for further investigation, and offer solutions. Read more here.

4) Do I need any formal science training or previous experience to start this program?

No. The water testing methods used by the BWTF can be mastered by most after a few trial runs. A manual is posted online and you can contact Mara Dias, Surfrider’s Water Quality Coordinator, mdias@surfrider.org, if you need any help along the way.

5) Can I get sick or otherwise harmed from performing these water tests?

Probably Not. It is recommended that everyone puts on plastic gloves before handling a water sample. This prevents any cross contamination of bacteria from your hands to the water and vice versa. Washing your hands with an anti-bacterial soap after sampling and when you are finished in the laboratory will also ensure that you don’t expose yourself to any bacteria that may or might not be in your samples. It is also recommended that you proceed with caution on slippery ground and rough surf so as to not fall into the water.

In general, it is also recommended for your safety that you take a shower after swimming in the ocean or digging in the sand, to rinse away any potential contaminants that might be in the water. USGS lab experiments have shown that submerging one’s hands four times in clean water removes more than 99% of the E. coli and associated viruses from the hands.

6) How much does it cost to start a water testing program?

It depends which method you choose to use. You can test your water samples by using either an IDEXX Quantitray Sealer or a multiple test tube method. The sealer is easier to use, generates less disposables and gives more specific results, but it is more costly, at approximately $6000 for the initial laboratory set-up. The multiple test tube method costs about $2000 for the initial laboratory set-up, and certainly would be a good start for a chapter interested in trying out the program. Both set-ups come with enough supplies to run approximately 200 water samples. Once supplies need to be replaced, it costs about $6 in expendable materials to process each sample.

Contact Mara Dias once you’ve decided to start this program to order water testing equipment and supplies.

7) How many volunteers do you need to run this program?

It depends on how many beaches you want to sample. The basic functions you need to cover are collecting water samples at the beach, delivering them to the lab, processing the samples for analysis and reading the results the next day. One person is able to cover all of these tasks for some chapters that sample only a few beaches, while other chapters designate a BWTF coordinator that manages 10-20 volunteers.

8) How much time is required of the volunteers?

Again, it depends on how many beaches are sampled. It could take as little as thirty minutes to collect the water samples and bring them to the lab or upwards to 3-4 hours. Each sample takes less than 10 minutes to prepare in the laboratory once you’ve mastered the procedure. Somebody also needs to return to the lab the next day to read the results and enter the data on the BWTF website (usually less than 30 mins).

9) Do I need a lot of space to set-up the water testing equipment?

The space requirement isn’t huge. You need a small working space, a counter top or small table in a garage or basement could suffice. You also need a place to store the incubator and sealer, if you choose to use one. The incubator is the size of a very small dorm fridge, and the sealer is the size of a really small, inexpensive microwave oven. Both run on 110v power.

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