Blue Water Task Force
October 22 2009

BWTF Frequently Asked Questions

by Mara Dias

1. What is the Blue Water Task Force?

The Blue Water Task Force (BWTF) is the Surfrider Foundation’s volunteer water quality monitoring program. Operating through a national network of 35+ labs, BWTF citizen scientists are providing critical water quality information to protect public health at the beach, raise awareness of local pollution problems and to bring together communities to implement solutions.

Most chapter BWTF water testing programs are designed to fill in the gaps and to complement state and local agency beach programs. Surfrider is testing beaches that are not covered by the agencies, and we are monitoring potential sources of pollution such as stormwater outlets and rivers and creeks that discharge onto the beach.

2. What are we testing for?

Water tests performed by the BWTF measure the amount of enterococcus bacteria in a water sample. Enterococcus bacteria are coliform bacteria that indicate fecal pollution (human or animal waste) and other pathogens that are also found in fecal matter that can make people sick with the stomach flu, rashes, eye and ear infections or worse. The higher the level of the fecal indicating bacteria enterococcus, the higher the risk of other illness-causing pathogens being present in the water as well. Learn more about the health risks from swimming in water tainted with human sewage or animal waste here.

Bacteria test results are compared to water quality standards set by the EPA to protect public health in recreational waters.  Similar data is used by state and local health agencies across the US to issue swim advisories and to make decisions to open or close beaches to protect public health at the beach.

While not harmful on their own account, enterococcus are a type 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, stormwater runoff, and human sources of sewage - such as combined sewer overflows, cess pools and failing septic and sewage infrastructure.  Read more about indicator bacteria, why we test for them, and how to identify sources in this Beachapedia article about bacterial pollution.

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 often 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.

Click through to learn how the South Sound Chapter in Washington and the San Luis Obispo Chapter in California are meeting critical information gaps in their communities.

B) Education

Many BWTF programs are based in high schools or other educational institutes (aquariums) and expose students and other youth groups to environmental science and local water quality pollution problems and solutions.  Participating in water testing programs is also very educational for adult volunteers.  Learn how many chapters are using their BWTF program to meet educational goals here.

C)  Increase public awareness of local water quality issues

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

D)Motivate a movement of care for our coasts

BWTF volunteers often become advocates for the beaches and watersheds they are monitoring, pushing for policy changes in their communities and inspiring people to make changes at their schools, homes and businesses to decrease their impact on local waterways.  The BWTF program run by the Marin County Chapter with the help of students from Branson School is a great example of this coastal ethic in action.

E) Identify local water quality problems and find solutions

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 and stakeholders when water quality issues are discovered, press for further investigation, and offer solutions.  This case study on the Northwest Straits Chapter’s BWTF program is a great example of this.

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 Colleen Henn, Surfrider’s Clean Water Coordinator, chenn@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 put 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 coliform bacteria and associated viruses from the hands.

6. What methods does the BWTF use to test water quality? 

The Blue Water Task Force uses IDEXX Enterolert/Quanti-tray Sealer methodology to measure enterolert bacteria levels in water samples. This method is an EPA- approved method for sampling recreational waters and is easy for volunteers and students to learn and use competently.  Bacteria results are obtained after a 24 hour sample incubation period.

7. How much does it cost to start a water testing program?

It costs about $7500 to purchase a complete BWTF lab set up with IDEXX equipment and enough supplies to process 100 water samples. Ongoing costs once the initial, expendable supplies run out are approximately $10 per sample. In some cases, used equipment might be available to lower the initial cost.

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

8. 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?

Setting up a testing program does not require a lot of space. You need a small working space, a countertop or small table that can be wiped down with sanitizer. You also need a place to store the incubator and sealer. The incubator is the size of a very small dorm fridge, and the sealer is the size of a really small microwave oven. Both run on 110v power.  Many chapters partner with local schools, aquariums or other NGOs with office space to host their lab equipment, but the equipment could also be set up at a private residence as well.

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