Blue Water Task Force, Water Quality, Illness
January 18 2012

New Beach Water Quality Standards?

by Mara Dias


The short of it....


EPA has now (December 2011) released new draft water quality standards for beach monitoring, but unfortunately, little has changed.   Ocean beaches will continue to be tested for Enterococcus, and the bacteria level that triggers a swimming advisory remains the same.  EPA has changed the way some data will be interpreted, depending on its use, and will allow development of site-specific criteria (which could be a relaxing of standards) if a location is willing to undergo their own source tracking and illness studies.

See our comments to EPA here.

Take action and send your own letter to the EPA here.


and the long of it.....


One of Surfrider Foundation’s important victories was helping to pass the Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health (BEACH) Act in 2000.  The BEACH Act is responsible for vast improvements in beach monitoring programs across the country. It set national water quality monitoring and reporting standards, creating uniformity throughout the nation that did not exist prior to its passage.


The water quality testing criteria mandated by the BEACH Act, however, were developed from epidemiology studies conducted in the 1970s and 80s. Therefore, the BEACH Act also directed the EPA to conduct new studies on pathogens (disease-causing agents) and pathogen indicators and to publish new water quality standards based on those studies.  When EPA failed to meet this legislative obligation, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the National Association of Clean Water Agencies and the Los Angeles County Flood Control District sued EPA. In August 2008, EPA and the plaintiffs reached a settlement on the lawsuit that requires EPA to conduct new scientific studies in order to publish new or revised recreational water quality criteria by October 2012.


Towards that end, the EPA has conducted several epidemiological studies, reviewed the results of studies conducted by others in the United States and in other countries, conducted a series of stakeholders meetings, and has solicited comments from these stakeholders on draft documents.  EPA conducted studies at ocean and freshwater beaches in temperate and tropical climates and at beaches influenced by treated wastewater and urban runoff.  These were conducted in response to criticism that previous studies were done primarily at freshwater beaches influenced by sewage point sources.


There have been high expectations that the new water quality criteria would identify new pathogen indicators that show a more consistent relationship with swimmer or surfer illness than the bacteria indicators that we are using now.  There have also been hopes that the EPA would approve a new rapid indicator method that could provide same day results for making timely beach management decisions rather than continuing to rely on traditional, culture-based methods that take at least 24 hours to provide results.


So, what changes should we expect?  Unfortunately, the draft recreational water criteria released by EPA on December 21, 2011, indicate that very few real changes are likely to occur at our beaches.  EPA’s criteria recommendations continue to rely on the same bacteria indicators as the present standards and their values have not changed.  Enterococcus remains the standard for both marine (104 cfu/100ml single sample maximum (ssm) and 35 cfu/100 ml 30-day geometric mean) and freshwater (61 cfu/100ml ssm and 33 cfu/100 ml geo mean).  An E. coli standard for freshwater will also continue to be accepted (235 cfu/100 ml ssm and 126 cfu/100 ml geo mean).  These bacteria standards, however, will now for the first time be applied nationally to both coastal and inland recreational waters.


While seemingly the standards are not changing, there has been some confusion over the exact health risk that is predicted at the health advisory level.  The original criteria were set assuming 8 swimmers out of 1000 would get sick at the standard level in freshwater and 19 swimmers out of 1000 would get sick at marine beaches.  Illness was defined by past studies as gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms with fever.  EPA’s recent studies counted any GI illness, with or without fever, and indicate up to 36 cases of illness out of 1000 would occur at the water quality standard level.  When extrapolated back to the former definition, however, the EPA predicts that only 6-8 illnesses would occur out of 1000 at both marine and freshwater beaches, so in effect, the protection level stays the same, and even seems lower at marine beaches, although a frank discussion of how this level of health risk was deemed ‘acceptable’ is not included in this document.


The studies conducted by the EPA were also not able to support any refinement in the standards to protect more susceptible populations such as children or to justify any adjustments to the standards when only animal sources of pollution are present.  The EPA, however, has left the door open to states that want to develop site-specific water quality criteria that differ from their national recommendations.  In order to do this, a state would have to conduct sanitary surveys to identify all sources of pollution to a beach or watershed and conduct their own epidemiological study to prove a water quality level does not cause a human health risk at that beach.  These types of studies are usually cost prohibitive at a beach or even at the city/county level, so we don’t think it is likely that this new rule will result in too many local variances from the national recommendations.  There are quicker and less expensive tools that might be applied to develop site-specific water quality standards, but EPA hasn’t provided any guidance yet on what exactly will be required.


One change that the EPA is making, is that a new rapid method for enterococcus will be allowed to be used if a state wants to go through an intensive and likely expensive, site-specific evaluation process.  Again, there doesn’t seem to be much incentive for a state to do this yet, as the rapid method will need to be run in parallel for a yet-unspecified amount of time, with the traditional culture methods.


The EPA has also dropped the multiple use intensity levels of water protection, and the national standards now will all be protective of primary recreational exposure.  This won’t amount to any changes in how beach advisories are made in most places, except in states that use standards meant to protect moderate use coastal recreation exposure at their beaches such as Oregon. 


Some minor changes and clarifications have also been made on how to interpret national standards in order to classify impaired water bodies.


So we are disappointed that we didn’t seem to learn anything new from EPA’s recent studies, and it looks like it will be business as usual at our beaches.  We just hope that the EPA doesn’t try to unduly hold back more progressive states that are ready to start using the new rapid methods and provides timely and clear guidance to states on setting site specific water quality standards that will be at least as protective of human health as the national recommendations.  EPA is accepting public comments on the draft criteria until February 21, 2012, and Surfrider will be joining other non-profits in expressing our concerns to the EPA by submitting comments.


The Draft Recreational Water Criteria can be found on EPA’s Recreational Water Quality Criteria website. In particular, the “Stakeholder Engagement” tab contains links to recent EPA presentations and a summary of the stakeholder meeting held on June 14-15, 2011.  This Powerpoint presentation explains the EPA’s Current Thinking for New Criteria and may be more reader-friendly than the draft criteria document.