It has been a very hot and humid summer in the Northeast. Heading to the beach to cool off has been high on our list of things to do, but several times we have arrived only to find the beach closed. Why? Because the bacteria levels in the water exceeded public health standards. Or, put simply, they found human or animal waste in the water. Yuck. Is this a growing trend?
According to the National Resource Defense Council, the number of beach closing and advisory days last year reached "the third-highest level in the 22-year history of reporting.” The Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that up to 3.5 million people become sick due to contract with raw sewage each year and that illnesses associated with polluted beach water include "stomach flu, skin rashes, pinkeye, respiratory infections, meningitis, and hepatitis.”
And how is this nasty stuff reaching our beaches and making us sick? The biggest culprit is stormwater runoff, which occurs when impervious surfaces like driveways or streets prevent rain from naturally soaking into the ground. As the rain sweeps across the roads and driveways it picks up debris, chemicals, and dirt which then flows into the storm sewer systems and ultimately into lakes, streams, rivers, and coastal water. In some areas, sewage systems combine both sewage as well as stormwater. Usually the water is treated before being released into the waterways. But during big storms, the volume of water is too much for the treatment plant to handle. This is known as combined sewer overflow.
What can you do? In the short term, find clean beaches. And in the long run, work on ways to capture rainwater before it slides across the road. Rain gardens, green roofs, and permeable pavement are all great ways to lessen stormwater runoff. You can also use rain barrels and cisterns to capture rain for reuse for watering gardens.
Also ask the EPA to propose a water quality plan that will protect us all.
If I haven’t grossed you out too much, happy swimming! And enjoy the last few weeks of summer!