Citizen Scientists and Government Working Together to Protect Public Health at the BeachBy Surfrider Foundation
An article was recently released by HawaiiBusiness.com titled “Water Warning”. This article does a great job of describing how beach water quality monitoring programs provide the information needed to inform and protect public health at the beach. It provides a good description of the sources of pollution that affect beach water quality and cause people to get sick from recreational exposure, namely stormwater runoff and fecal pollution - from either human sources (sewage spills, septic systems & cesspools) or animal sources (pets, agriculture and wildlife). Read more about the sources of pollution that affect beach water quality on our Clean Water Initiative page.
The Hawaii Business article also presents well the perspective of a government employee tasked with running the EPA - BEACH Act Funded - beach monitoring program in Hawaii and the financial and geographical constraints he faces in fulfilling the task to provide broad public health protection in a state with 446 identified public beaches. Like beach program managers in every coastal state, he is faced with the difficult task of prioritizing where and how to spend his limited funding and employee resources to optimize public health protection, and this invariably leaves gaps in coverage where water quality information is not available to inform safe beach use. But there are ways to help meet this need and Surfrider's network of volunteers and activists are out in their communities doing their best to work collaboratively with agencies to ensure that the bathing public has the information they need to avoid getting sick at the beach and that pollution problems are identified and fixed.
1. Brown Water Advisories. In Hawaii, and many other coastal states, beach managers don't wait until test results are ready 24 hours after sampling, before advisories are issued when rain and runoff conditions occur that are known to wash bacteria and other pollutants off the land and into the sea. Precautionary advisories are issued to warn the public of the potentially poor water quality conditions. In Hawaii, Surfrider staff and volunteers are working together with the State Department of Health (HDOH) and lifeguards to improve posting and warning of these advisories.
2. Citizen Science. Surfrider's chapter-run Blue Water Task Force (BWTF) water testing programs are designed specifically to fill in the gaps left by the agency programs to help them direct their limited resources to areas where there are concerns with public health risk. On Kauai, the HDOH monitors official bathing beaches with lifeguards, and the Surfrider Chapter's BWTF program tests approximately 25 surf spots and streams that discharge onto the beach that are popular recreational spots themselves with their invitingly calm warm water. In 2016, Surfrider achieved a great success in convincing the HDOH to post signs at a couple of these streams where our water quality data have demonstrated consistently high bacteria levels and we are continuing to work with the state to continue to improve public notification at these chronically polluted sites and wherever bacteria levels exceed health standards. More information about these collaborative efforts here.
On Oahu, the Chapter is conducting a comprehensive study of four sampling sites by measuring levels of bacteria and a suite of 126 priority pollutants before, during and after stormwater events (Brown Water Advisories) to provide a better description of the types and levels of pollutants that are being transported to the beach by stormwater so remedial efforts can be targeted and effective. Learn more about Oahu Chapter's stormwater study on their website.
Across the country there is a growing recognition by agencies and the research community of the value of citizen science and an increasing willingness to collaborate with and use data generated by citizen groups like Surfrider to meet environmental and public health protection missions. This agency/citizen partnership is only going to be more critical as government programs across the board continue to feel the pressures of uncertain and shrinking budgets.
3. Support for BEACH Act Funding. As the Water Warning article clearly points out, state-run beach water quality monitoring programs do not have enough resources to cover all of their bathing beaches all the time. When the BEACH Act passed back in 2000, the EPA grants program that provides funding to help pay for these state programs was authorized at $30 million, but unfortunately the actual budget amount has never exceeded $10 million. And even that relatively small appropriation that is shared amongst 35 coastal states and territories, has been at risk the past 5 years as the President's budget has proposed to eliminate all funding for this critical public health protection program. Support in Congress has saved level funding for the BEACH Act, but given the uncertain and changing political climate in DC, Surfrider will be doubling down on our efforts to make sure the funding is available that provides you with the information you need to determine where it is safe to swim and surf at the beach. Learn more about our efforts to keep the BEACH Act funded here and join us by sending an email to your Congressional representatives asking them to support safe and healthy beaches.
Long Live the Beach! Long Live Clean Water!