Safe for Swimming 2021 Edition

Pollution at our beaches and how to prevent it
Released by: PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center

The Clean Water Act, adopted in 1972, set the goal of making all of our waterways safe for  swimming. Nearly a half-century later, Amer icans visiting their favorite beach are still met all too  often by advisories warning that the water is unsafe for  swimming. And each year, millions of Americans are  sickened by swimming in contaminated water. 

An analysis of fecal indicator bacteria sampling data  from beaches in 29 coastal and Great Lakes states and  Puerto Rico reveals that 328 beaches – more than  one of every 10 beaches surveyed – were potentially  unsafe on at least 25% of the days that sampling took  place in 2020. More than half of all the 3,166 beaches  reviewed were potentially unsafe for swimming on  at least one day. Beaches were considered potentially  unsafe if fecal indicator bacteria levels exceeded the  U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “Beach Action  Value” associated with an estimated illness rate of 32  out of every 1,000 swimmers. 

To protect our health at the beach, policymakers  should undertake efforts to prevent fecal pollution,  including deploying natural and green infrastructure  to absorb stormwater. 

Fecal contamination makes beaches unsafe for  swimming. Human contact with contaminated water  can result in gastrointestinal illness as well as respiratory  disease, ear and eye infection, and skin rash. Each year  in the U.S., people contract an estimated 57 million  cases of recreational waterborne illness from swimming  in oceans, lakes, rivers and ponds.

Our beaches are at risk. Runoff from paved surfaces, overflows from aging sewage systems, and manure from industrial livestock operations all threaten the waters  where Americans swim. These pollution threats are  getting worse with climate change, as more extreme  precipitation events bring heavy flows of stormwater.