Bacteria pose risk at 100% of Erie beaches tested

Water pollution persists as Congress considers infrastructure funding
For Immediate Release

Erie, PA – With Pennsylvanians returning to local beaches this summer, a new report warns that more work is needed to ensure that all waters are safe for swimming. 

In 2020, two Erie County beaches were potentially unsafe for swimming on at least 25% of the days they were tested, according to PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center’s annual analysis of bacteria testing, Safe for Swimming?.  The report comes as Congress considers investments in water infrastructure.

“Even as Western Pennsylvanians are back to enjoying the fresh breezes and splashing at Presque Isle beaches, pollution is still plaguing too many of the places where we swim," said Ashleigh Deemer, Deputy Director of the PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center. "Now is the time to fix our water infrastructure and stop the flow of pathogens to our beaches.”

To assess beach safety, the group examined whether fecal indicator bacteria levels exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) most protective “Beach Action Value,” which is associated with an estimated illness rate of 32 out of every 1,000 swimmers. At Presque Isle, Beach 11 had bacteria levels above this safety threshold on almost half of the days tested last year.

All of Erie’s beaches tested found potentially unsafe for swimming at least once in 2020. The average number of unsafe water testing days at Presque Isle beaches rose from 10% in 2019 to 16% in 2020.

Polluted runoff and sewage overflows are common sources of contamination that can put swimmers’ health at risk and lead authorities to close beaches or issue health advisories. Erie reported 9 sewer overflows this past month alone. Scientists estimate 57 million instances of people getting sick each year in the U.S. from swimming in oceans, lakes, rivers and ponds. This includes cases of acute gastrointestinal illness.

The report recommends major investments to prevent sewage overflows and runoff pollution.  

"This report calls for upgrading stormwater and sewer infrastructure and increasing funding for agriculture best management practices, all of which fit well with local, state, and national efforts to address water pollution," said Sarah Bennett, Campaign Manager for Clean Water Advocacy for PennFuture. "Protecting our natural infrastructure like wetlands and installing green stormwater infrastructure will help reduce bacterial pollution and can also reduce sediment and nutrient pollution and flooding. We happily lend our voice and support to PennEnvironment’s efforts to raise awareness of the threats to clean water and policies that can address them.”

Now, Congress is considering an infrastructure plan that includes billions in funding for water and sewer infrastructure. And three weeks ago, the U.S. House infrastructure committee approved the Water Quality Protection Act, which authorizes urgently needed funding to stop sewage overflows, with 15 percent of those funds dedicated to green projects - including nature-based solutions that prevent runoff pollution from flowing into our rivers, lakes, and streams.  

“It’s critical that our Pennsylvania congresspeople keep these beautiful beaches and other Pennsylvania waterways in mind as they consider these infrastructure bills,” said Deemer. “When pathogens flow into our waters, Pennsylvania families pay the price,” said Deemer. “Let’s make our beaches safe for swimming for generations to come by making bold and historic investments in water infrastructure.”

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PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center is dedicated to protecting our air, water and open spaces. We investigate problems, craft solutions, educate the public and decision-makers, and help the public make their voices heard in local, state and national debates over the quality of our environment and our lives. For more information, visit www.PennEnvironmentcenter.org.