Surf Zone Water Quality
Note: This article was written in 2007. Certain statistics and links have been updated since that time.
Water quality concerns are one of the main issues that caused Surfrider Foundation to be formed in 1984 – surfers were tired of getting sick from surfing in polluted waters and wanted to do something about it. Although a lot has happened in the interim, Clean Water initiatives and campaigns remain at the forefront of Surfrider’s work over 25 years later.
Water quality at our beaches around the country continues to be impaired on a regular basis by both nonpoint source pollution (polluted surface runoff from land during both dry and wet weather) and episodic sewer spills (sanitary sewer overflows and combined sewer overflows).
Nonpoint Source Pollution
By far the biggest continuing, difficult-to-solve threat to water quality at our beaches in nonpoint source pollution running off of both urban hardscape and agricultural lands in wet weather and dry weather. The root causes of this type of pollution are many, including unplanned development, improper zoning, too much impervious surface in our watersheds, the use of thirsty, non-native landscaping, overwatering, excessive use of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, littering, changes to natural topography and “hydromodification” of watercourses.
As discussed below, addressing these issues will require fundamental changes to the way we plan and develop our communities and the way we do things like landscaping our properties and watering our gardens. We also need to look more at the “big picture.” Water quality problems often cannot be solved just by one beach city or even a single county or state. Managing both entire coastal watersheds and entire coastal ecosystems (of which we are an integral part) is vital to solving our water quality problems.
Routine water quality testing at beaches around the country in 2011 indicated that there were more than 23,000 beach closing and advisory days at ocean, bay, and Great Lakes beaches, confirming that our beaches continue to suffer from serious water pollution problems. The percentage of beach samples exceeding national water quality standards at "Tier 1" beaches during 2011 varied considerably from state to state. The states covered in Surfrider Foundation's State of the Beach report with the highest percentage of failing samples were Louisiana (29%), Ohio (22%), Illinois (12%), Indiana (11%), Connecticut (11%) ans Wisconsin (11%) while the states with the lowest percentage of failing samples were Delaware (1%), New Hampshire (1%), North Carolina (3%), New Jersey (3%), Florida (3%), Virginia (4%), and Hawaii (4%).
In addition to these chronic problems, sewer spills can cause beach closures and/or environmental effects. Detailed below are five such spills that occurred in 2006 and 2007, along with issues that bubbled to the surface as a result of the spills.
This was the granddaddy of the 2006 sewer spills. In March 2006, during an extended period of heavy rain, a main sewer line burst and discharged approximately 50 million gallons of untreated sewage into the Ala Wai Canal, which flows into the ocean at the west end of Waikiki Beach, near the famous Ala Moana Bowls surf spot. Officials were slow to post closure signs at Waikiki and adjacent beaches and there seemed to be a lack of planning on how to respond to such an event, both in terms of the public notification and also spill containment and response. Honolulu officials, the Hawaii Department of Health and the local sanitation district all were aware that the sewer line in question was being stretched beyond capacity and was long overdue for repair or replacement. However, they delayed committing the necessary resources to sewer infrastructure improvements until it was too late.
After the spill, Surfrider Foundation’s Oahu Chapter held meetings to provide a public forum to discuss issues such as how to identify health risks, new solutions to address spill response issues, and sewage treatment infrastructure improvements. Out of these meetings, a Wastewater Spill Response Committee formed to work to improve Oahu's water quality and reduce the impact of future spills. The Committee brought together representatives from state and county health departments, universities, the tourism industry, and other interested public health and environmental groups. The chapter is participating in two subgroups, Emergency Preparedness and Epidemiology. One of Surfrider Foundation’s members also wrote an opinion piece in the local newspaper suggesting specific actions that should be undertaken to avoid a repeat of this kind of incident. Understandably, Honolulu is now expediting installation of a parallel replacement sewer line.
Hermosa Beach, California
A month prior to the Honolulu spill, a 2 million gallon sewer spill occurred in Hermosa Beach near Los Angeles. A main sewer pump station failed and backup power and alarm systems also failed. The result was a spill that was largely “contained” on the sand at the beach. After the sewage either was pumped back into the sewer system or seeped into the sand, the issue became – how to decontaminate the sand? As it turned out, little precedent existed for determining how clean was clean and there was a lack of consensus on the best way to achieve the cleanup. Ultimately, a diluted bleach solution was sprayed onto and tilled into the sand in repeated treatments until water extracts from the sand showed low levels of “indicator bacteria” such as fecal coliform and enterococcus.
As a follow-up, the agency responsible for the spill, Los Angeles County Sanitation District, organized a workshop in June 2006 that invited health experts, sanitation district personnel, university researchers and representatives from NGOs to help them develop an updated and improved spill clean-up contingency plan and agree on protocols for spills that result in contaminated sand or other pervious surfaces.
In April 2007 a break in a sewer line near the Buena Vista Lagoon at the border between Oceanside and Carlsbad in San Diego County caused over 7 million gallons of sewage to flow into Buena Vista Lagoon, which empties into the ocean. Beaches were closed for several days. The spill compares with a 5 million-gallon overflow that killed about 5,000 fish and wiped out at least seven fish species at the lagoon in 1994. The sewer line that ruptured was 25 years old. Besides the age of the sewer line, the location of the force main sewer immediately adjacent to the lagoon was cited as being problematic, since the line is continuously wet (and therefore more subject to corrosion) and there is little chance of containing a spill should one occur.
Port Angeles, Washington
A sewage spill estimated at 6 to 8 million gallons occurred in Port Angeles in May 2006. In response, Surfrider Foundation's Olympic Peninsula Chapter issued a press release that pointed out that this spill was not the first - in 2005 the city reported 110 overflows into Port Angeles Harbor, discharging a total of over 33 million gallons of pollution into the harbor and adjacent waters. The chapter called upon the City of Port Angeles to immediately address outstanding maintenance and repair issues.
Wilmington, North Carolina
A series of sewer spills occurred in the Wilmington, North Carolina area in 2005 and 2006. A large (estimated 3 million gallons) sewer spill occurred into Hewletts Creek in New Hanover County in July 2005. A blanket advisory was issued by N.C. Division of Water Quality covering all of Hewletts Creek and all marsh tidal creeks adjacent to Hewletts Creek, an area of approximately four square miles. City officials estimated that the spill killed 500 fish. Testing of sediments nearly two weeks after the Hewletts Creek spill found bacteria levels that ranged from three to 30 times normal levels.
An editorial in the Wilmington Star on July 22, 2005 criticized Wilmington officials for not taking action to correct a history of sewer spills even after being warned by state officials in 2004 that their sewer system was among 25 "problematic" systems.
Another sewer spill into Hewlett's Creek occurred in September 2005. As with the July spill, the city didn't know sewage was flowing until someone reported it. But this time, the city announced the 750,000-gallon spill within an hour and made efforts to notify city residents. In late February 2006 a further sewage spill in Wilmington affected Hewletts Creek and local media reported that a total of about 4 million gallons of raw sewage had leaked into area waterways in the preceding year from about two dozen different spills.
The continued spills in this area led the Cape Fear Chapter of Surfrider Foundation to join with the North Carolina Coastal Federation in December 2006 to urge Wilmington and state regulators to step up and do more to protect residents and coastal ecosystems from sewage spills. Specifically, the groups urged that new hookups to the sewer system be limited and strictly overseen, and that efforts be expedited to both complete temporary improvements and construct a parallel sewer line.
In May 2007 the U.S. EPA sent a letter to the city of Wilmington stating that the city had violated the Clean Water Act with at least 103 sewer spills that had reached public waters since late 2001. Also in May 2007, state regulators sent a letter to the city of Wilmington saying that Wilmington, New Hanover County and Wrightsville Beach should stop issuing building permits until the sewer issues "can be adequately resolved."
A common thread in all these cases is neglected sewer infrastructure. Sewer lines and other sewer conveyance and treatment infrastructure are often truly “out if sight, out of mind.” But the reality is that they do corrode, degrade, beak, plug and become undersized as the years go by and growth continues. A big push to upgrade water and wastewater infrastructure in this country was made in the 1970s with Clean Water Act grants and the revolving loan program. Government investment in wastewater infrastructure has waned in recent years and the above case studies point out the consequences.
Two bills were introduced in the US House of Representatives in early 2007 to address these problems. H.R. 720 would authorize $14 billion over four years for the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, a federal low-interest wastewater loan program. H.R. 569, the "Water Quality Investment Act of 2007" would address the problem of sewer overflows by authorizing $1.8 billion in grants over five years. This measure seeks to help cities address severe funding shortfalls for upgrading aging sewer systems that carry sanitary waste and stormwater runoff to treatment plants through the same pipes. During heavy rain these combined sewers often overflow directly into our rivers and the ocean. See where most of the combined sewers are located. Surfrider Foundation urges sewer agencies, local government, state government and the federal government to commit to revitalized programs to stop and reverse the deterioration.
Developments in Monitoring and Health Protection
BEACH Act and Beyond
Thanks to a lot of hard work by Surfrider Foundation activists and other environmental groups, the Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health (BEACH) Act of 2000 was signed into law on October 10, 2000. The goals of this act were to require a uniform water quality testing, reporting and public notification program be implemented at ocean and lake recreational beaches. Although the BEACH Act has resulted in increased beach water testing and a greater degree of uniformity in testing standards between states, large differences still remain in testing frequency, number of test locations per beach, responses to test results that are above standards, and methods of public notification. In addition, the BEACH Act required the development of updated water quality standards (the current standards were promulgated by EPA in 1986) and this has not been done. Prompted in part by a lawsuit from NRDC, EPA is currently holding a series of meetings with beach managers and technical experts to develop new standards. A continuing problem with the BEACH Act (which is overdue for reauthorization) is that although up to $30 million per year in state grants can be authorized, the allocated funding has been stuck at about $10 million per year since the program’s inception.
Surfrider Foundation encourages Congress to re-authorize the BEACH Act, fully fund it, and utilize new epidemiological studies conducted at salt water beaches (see below) to revise the recreational water quality standards. Beyond that, more attention must be devoted to identifying and eliminating sources of pollution so that we can move closer to a goal of clean beaches where swimmers and surfers don’t have to worry about getting sick.
Beach water quality monitoring typically tests for the presence of indicator bacteria (usually enterococcus or e. coli) whose presence has been correlated with the presence of human pathogens (disease-causing organisms) and therefore with actual human illnesses such as gastroenteritis, diarrhea, and various infections in Epidemiological Studies.
One of the limitations of all available and EPA-approved test methods is that the sample must be incubated for about 24 hours. So, we find out today that we shouldn't have gone in the water yesterday. As a result, warning signs on the beach may or may not be reflective of actual water quality because they are based on tests performed one or more days ago.
Because of this, much research is going into developing what is generally termed "Rapid Indicator" tests that would give results in 4 hours or less. The Southern California Coastal Water Research Project (SCCWRP) has conducted testing on new methods. The two most promising methods seem to be a quantitative PCR (QPCR) method and a Transcription Mediated Amplification (TMA) method. SCCWRP then compared the QPCR and TMA methods with results obtained using standard “defined substrate” and membrane filtration methods on "real world" ocean samples.
These tests were designed to evaluate whether the new rapid tests can give comparable results to the existing EPA-approved test methods. A second important question is whether the bacterial concentrations detected by the rapid test methods correlate with an increased risk of illness in people who go in the water. To help answer that question, epidemiological tests using QPCR to measure enterococci were conducted during 2003-2005 by EPA at four freshwater Great Lakes beaches and at a beach on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. These studies, as reported by Timothy Wade of USEPA at the National Beaches Conference held in October 2006, concluded that enterococcus measured by QPCR was statistically correlated with gastrointestinal illness and rashes. This was the first such test that correlated a rapidly measured indicator with health effects. Another large-scale epidemiological study that included the use of rapid test methods was conducted at Doheny State Beach and other locations in Southern California during 2007-2009.
A preliminary evaluation of the rapid indicator test methods by SCCWRP's "Beach Water Quality Workgroup" (Surfrider is a member) concluded that the best initial applications for these new test methods would probably be "special studies" such as:
- Tracking spatial progress of a sewage spill from an inland source to the beach
- Decision support relevant to re-opening a closed beach
- Tracking fecal contamination sources to their origins
These exciting new technologies hold promise in improving our ability to better understand the complex issues surrounding beach closures by using genetic methods to improve our ability to “know before you go”.
Looking Forward – Solutions?
Faster testing is good, but what about solving the problem? We need to move beyond monitoring to identifying and implementing water quality solutions. Surfrider Foundation believes that this will involve looking at our water usage and coastal impacts in a holistic manner.
Our coastal water quality problems often result from a lack of planning and a failure to look at the “big picture.” Yes, there are instances of deliberate pollution and pollution resulting from neglect of infrastructure. But we are also coming to realize that the way we’ve (over)developed land in coastal watersheds and the way we misuse water are equally to blame. Many studies have shown that there is a direct correlation between the percentage of paving and other impervious surfaces in a watershed and a decline in water quality. This is primarily due to the fact that both rainwater and dry weather urban runoff is prevented from soaking into the ground, so it continues down through the watershed to the ocean, carrying pollutants with it. In arid locations like southern California, ephemeral streams that naturally only carried water to the ocean during infrequent periods of heavy rainfall now flow to the ocean all year round. Add to this the many storm drains that flow continuously, fed primarily by irrigation runoff, and you have a big problem. So, how can we possibly correct these problems? Three promising and complimentary strategies are Ecosystem-based Management, Low Impact Development, and Climate Adapted Landscaping.
Ecosystem-based Management (EBM) is an approach that:
- Integrates ecological, social, and economic goals and recognizes humans as key components of the ecosystem
- Considers ecological - not just political - boundaries
- Addresses the complexity of natural processes and social systems and uses an adaptive management approach in the face of resulting uncertainties
- Engages multiple stakeholders in a collaborative process to define problems and find solutions
- Incorporates understanding of ecosystem processes and how ecosystems respond to environmental perturbations
- Is concerned with the ecological integrity of coastal-marine systems and the sustainability of both human and ecological systems
In a geographic sense, EBM encourages a watershed approach to water quality problems. This often requires collaboration and cooperation between neighboring cities or counties or sometimes even states. Large-scale examples include the Chesapeake Bay and the Mississippi River.
Low Impact Development
Low Impact Development (LID) uses various land planning and design practices and technologies to simultaneously conserve and protect natural resource systems and reduce infrastructure costs. LID still allows land to be developed, but in a cost-effective manner that helps mitigate potential environmental impacts. A key goal of LID is to maintain the “predevelopment hydrology” (surface water volume, frequency, and recharge). Bioretention, an LID technique, can reduce runoff impacts from paved areas. The goal of bioretention is to reduce the effective impervious area (EIA) in a watershed and also provide avenues for infiltration and/or natural filtration of runoff before it reaches the ocean.
LID techniques include the use of open swales, infiltration basins, vegetative buffers, rain gardens, rain barrels, maintaining natural topography, use of wetlands, and maintaining land cover. Landscape design can be used to prevent erosion, sedimentation and reduce stormwater runoff. LID designs generally require the use of about 5 to 7 percent of the site's landscaped area to treat the first one-half inch of runoff and to maintain predevelopment flow regimes.
In addition, in arid climates the use of native or climate-adapted landscaping can result in multiple economic and environmental benefits – lower water usage and costs, lower chemical and maintenance costs and less water and pollutant runoff that causes water quality problems at the beach. Surfrider Foundation, in cooperation with several water agencies, is promoting an Ocean Friendly Gardens program in southern California to advance these concepts.
The good news is that surveys conducted for our State of the Beach report indicate a growing awareness and use of these concepts and techniques to address ocean water pollution problems. A few examples include:
With their Groundwater Replenishment System, the Orange County Water District and Orange County Sanitation District are teaming up to take about 70 million gallons per day of secondary-treated sewage that was formerly discharged to the ocean off Huntington Beach, cleanse it further with three additional stages of treatment, and percolate the treated water into the ground to re-charge underground aquifers.
Several water districts in southern California are teaming with Surfrider Foundation and local landscapers to promote Surfrider’s Ocean Friendly Gardens program.
The Georgia Department of Natural Resources has proposed rules that give its Coastal Marshlands Protection Committee the authority to enforce water management, limitations on impervious surfaces and increased buffer restrictions for certain developments along the coast.
Georgia's Green Growth Guidelines help local governments, developers, engineers and land planners, landscape architects and natural resource managers compare the environmental, social and economic benefits of using sustainable development strategies with conventional development approaches.
Tybee Island received a "Water First" award from the Georgia Department of Community Affairs. Tybee has a city ordinance that requires pervious pavement on driveways to reduce storm water runoff. Tybee also has worked with the city's hotels to voluntarily reduce water usage and their tiered water rate system promotes conservation.
Maryland has broken ground on an upgrade for the Chestertown Wastewater Treatment Plant. The upgrade will dramatically reduce the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus, and other nutrients that the treatment plant dumps into the Chester River which flows directly to the Chesapeake Bay. In addition to the Chestertown Wastewater Treatment Plant upgrade, additional plant upgrades are scheduled to take place at all 66 major treatment plants in the state.
The New Jersey Appeals Court upheld the Department of Environmental Protection’s authority to adopt comprehensive stormwater rules requiring 300-foot buffers to protect high-quality waters from the dangers of development.
New Jersey's Coast 2005 initiative, announced in April 2005, is a comprehensive plan to protect the integrity and economic viability of New Jersey's valuable coastal resources. Under the initiative, the state will strengthen standards and regulations that protect the coastal ecosystem, enhance public access opportunities, expand protection for coastal wildlife and wildlife habitats, and support tourist, seafood and maritime industries.
The N.C. General Assembly fully funded the N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund for the first time in 2005 by providing a $100 million appropriation.
A bill passed in April 2006 by the State Assembly's Environmental Conservation Committee creates a New York Ocean and Great Lakes Ecosystem Conservation Council to coordinate state marine resources decisions, encourage ecosystem-based management approaches, and ensure that accurate information about the state of coastal fisheries is more widely available. It also calls on the Council to create a comprehensive, ecosystem-based ocean management plan by the fall of 2008.
Governor Pataki included a new Ocean and Great Lakes Category in the expanded Environmental Protection Fund proposed in his 2006-2007 budget.
Portland's "Big Pipe" is the city's biggest city-paid construction project. The expected cost for the system of underground tunnels designed to reduce sewer overflows from Portland to the Willamette River is $1.4 billion.
The Port Orford Ocean Resource Team (POORT) is a community-initiated and inclusive organization founded in 2001. POORT seeks to combine the best science and experiential knowledge available to the community to realize its vision of a sustainable fishery and healthy nearshore ecosystem. They are planning for the establishment of a Community Stewardship Area that would encompass the community’s fishing grounds and associated watershed. POORT has also established a water quality testing laboratory in partnership with Pacific High School and the Surfrider Foundation. The water quality program provides a platform for POORT to address land-sea connections as part of an ecosystem-based approach to management.
Rhode Island completed the Greenwich Bay Special Area Management Plan in 2005. The intent of this plan is to limit development on Greenwich Bay and improve water quality, recreation and fish harvests. The objectives of the plan include increasing the number of homeowners tied to public sewers, reducing the nitrogen discharged from local sewage treatment plants, ending beach closures because of waterborne bacteria by 2010 and opening half the bay to winter or year-round shellfish harvesting by 2020.
Since 2000, North Myrtle Beach has spent $13 million for 4 stormwater ocean outfalls, and they plan to spend $30 to $40 million for six more over the next 20 years. The city has also re-routed drainage away from the ocean as part of road improvement projects and has been incorporating "smart growth" principles by encouraging clustering of development, larger open spaces and buffers to minimize runoff.
A proposed program to allow the use of treated wastewater for irrigation, industrial cooling, livestock quenching, dust control, fire protection, car washing, street cleaning and office toilet flushing was unanimously approved by the State Water Control Board in March 2007.
Governor Timothy Kaine announced in December 2006 that he would introduce legislation authorizing $250 million in bonds to upgrade sewage treatment plants throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The bonds will provide funds to share the costs with localities for installing technologies that will reduce nutrient pollution discharged into Virginia waters. The sewage treatment plant upgrades made possible by these funds will prevent an estimated four million pounds of nitrogen compounds from entering Virginia's rivers that flow into the Bay.
In October 2005, King County announced the completion of a $77 million "Henderson/Martin Luther King Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) Project", which features a 15-foot-diameter, two-thirds-mile-long pipe that can hold four million gallons of combined storm drain and sewer overflow water until it can be treated.
The overall message here is that we can and are doing things around the country to address water quality problems.
Top 5/Bottom 5
Surfrider Foundation considered the water quality information and status grades for the states in our State of the Beach report, as well as some qualitative factors, to develop a “Top 5” and “Bottom 5” list of states with regard to both supplying information to the public about water quality and actually protecting water quality at the beach. States in each category are listed alphabetically. Here are the results:
Follows BEACH Act guidelines since at least 2000; Over 90% of beach closures in 2005 were preemptive; Comprehensive Coastal Nonpoint Source Pollution Control Program; Project WET public education for K-12 educators; 65 of 67 beaches monitored on a weekly basis
Follows BEACH Act standards since 2002; Weekly sampling during the summer months and bi-weekly monitoring of popular surf beaches during the winter at the urging of local Surfrider Chapter; Monitors all 25 miles of ocean coast and 25 miles of bay coastline; Has only one sewage outfall on its Atlantic Ocean coast; Clean Marina Program
Full BEACH Act compliance; Issues an advisory after first failed sample; Atlantic Ocean monitoring generally occurs once a week every 5 blocks; Project WET in place since 1990; All 96 miles of Ocean coastline fully support all uses; In the middle of a 14 year sewer system upgrade
Has only 18 miles of coastline; Has met Beach Act standards since 1990; NH coastal waters designated a "No Discharge Zone" for boats; Carry-It-Don't-Bury-It cigarette butt campaign; monitors 14 of 16 beaches weekly and 1 bi-weekly during the summer
First State to have a statewide monitoring program with a bacteria standard and mandatory closures; Adopted BEACH Act standards in 2004; Ocean and Bay beaches are monitored at least weekly during the summer months; Beach info hotline run by NJDEP; Introduced the Clean Ocean Zone bill in July of 2006 to permanently protect the NY/NJ Bight
Has no surf zone water quality monitoring program; Has over 47,000 miles of coastline; Confusing myriad of state and federal programs dealing with WQ; Continued problems with cruise ship discharges; Does not have the staff or financial ability to adequately monitor its coast
More than 70% of NYC’s 6000 miles of sewer are combined with stormwater pipes and the city is currently trying to get sewer system standards relaxed; Only 56% of state beaches were monitored on a weekly basis last year; NYC will not close beaches or post advisories based on monitoring results alone
Yet to adopt BEACH Act standards; No weekly monitoring, and only 61% of beaches monitored biweekly; Only 11% of the 550 miles of coastline is monitored; Less than half of the 4 million PR residents have either sewage treatment or septic systems in their homes; Multiple CWA violations including a record CWA settlement by PRASA in June 2006 for 15 different felony violations
No preemptive rainfall standards despite monitoring results that show high bacterial counts after rainfall events; The Texas GLO runs the Beach Watch Program and monitoring, but only local governments have the authority to post advisories or close beaches; Since the Beach Watch program was initiated NONE of the local governments have closed a single beach
Of 741 marine coastal beaches, only 10% are monitored weekly, and 65% are not monitored at all; Nearly half of all beach closures in 2006 were due to repeat offender CSO events and STP malfunctions; City of Port Angeles spilled some 6-8 million gallons of raw sewage into the Strait of Juan de Fuca in a single spill in May of 2006; 2005 sewage spills and overflows totaled over 33 million gallons; Serious pollution issues in Puget Sound
Water quality problems are by no means unique to the United States. Our colleagues at Surfrider Europe have put together a great video showing sources and solutions of ocean water pollution in Europe.