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Fecal bacteria levels found at Carolina Beach and Holden Beach exceeded EPA standards last year

Beach closed due to high bacteria levels in the water sign at sunset warns people to stay out of the water.
Phil Lowe - stock.adobe.com
87 beaches in North Carolina were considered potentially unsafe for swimming at least one day in 2020. Seven beaches were considered potentially unsafe at least a quarter of the days tested, including Carolina Beach and Holden Beach.

In 1972, the Clean Water Act set a nationwide goal of making all waterways safe for swimming. But thanks to runoff pollution and sewage overflows, beaches in North Carolina are still falling short of that target.

Last summer, Environment North Carolina Research and Policy Center commenced its annual analysis of bacteria testing. Each week, beaches and rivers across the state were tested for E. coli, a bacteria found in human and animal feces. The results were then compared to recreational water quality standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Based on the bacteria levels, researchers in this year's Safe for Swimming report found that 87 beaches were considered potentially unsafe for swimming at least one day in 2020. Seven beaches were considered potentially unsafe at least a quarter of the days tested, including Carolina Beach and Holden Beach.

Other North Carolina beaches found potentially unsafe for swimming at least once in 2020 were Pamlico River at Havens Gardens Park, Pamlico River at the railroad trestle in Beaufort County, Beach by Vandemere Creek, Jockey’s Ridge Beach, Beach at Pantego Creek, Beach at Union Point, Hancock Creek and Lennoxville Boat Ramp in Beaufort.

Environment NC added that swimmers could also be at risk at additional beaches where no bacterial testing was conducted or available.

Screen Shot 2021-07-09 at 11.17.31 AM.png
Environment North Carolina Research and Policy Center
In 2020, 210 beaches were tested for fecal indicator bacteria in North Carolina. At 87 of those beaches, testing found potentially unsafe water on at least one day, and seven beaches were potentially unsafe on at least 25% of the days they were tested.

According to the EPA's website, the agency "recommends E. coli as the best indicator of health risk from water contact in recreational waters."

“When people come into contact with water during recreational activities like fishing, swimming, wading, with waters of high levels of E. coli fecal contamination — it's a public health issue.”
Jill Howell, Pamlico-Tar Riverkeeper with Sound Rivers

Jill Howell is the Pamlico-Tar Riverkeeper with Sound Rivers, a nonprofit that monitors river watersheds. And she explains that exposure to fecal bacteria doesn’t just sound gross, but can result in gastrointestinal illness, respiratory disease, ear and eye infections, and skin rashes.

So, the million-dollar question: why is there poop in the water?

“We see this contamination coming from sources like leaking septic systems and properly functioning wastewater treatment plants, stormwater runoff, and industrial animal agriculture operations," says Howell.

The Safe for Swimming report lists a few key ways to avoid further contamination at beaches: reduce urban runoff pollution, reduce sewage pollution, and reduce manure pollution.

But researchers note that the issue is preventable. And thanks to ever-evolving technology, there are now countless stormwater runoff prevention possibilities. Permeable pavement is just one example.

Meanwhile, this year the state Department of Transportation is undergoing a major stormwater design manual update, which will focus on implementing sustainable solutions for reducing runoff statewide.

Manure pollution could be a more significant hurdle. According to environmental nonprofits — who protested the state's now-official Farm Act of 2021 — pollution from industrial hog operations continues to pollute waterways and the air.

Environmental NC also recommends more education and outreach — including the use of the EPA’s most protective “Beach Action Value” bacteria standard for posting beach advisories, and implementing systems for same-day water testing and warnings. And, of course — more water testing requires funding.

If you're concerned about the water quality at the beach near you, you can check out theswimguide.org to see bacteria levels at specific beaches — and possibly prevent your daycation from turning into a total crapshoot.

Read the full 2021 report here.

Hannah is WHQR's All Things Considered host, and also reports on science, the environment, and climate change. She enjoys loud music, documentaries, and stargazing; and is the proud mother of three cats, a dog, and many, many houseplants. Contact her via email at hbreisinger@whqr.org, or on Twitter @hbreisinger.