Beach Monitoring

Monitoring beaches

Beaches are the by-product of a living community, a community that, like all life, is directed toward, and interested in its own perpetuation. When its life-activity is disrupted, its vitality diminishes. Beaches and the living non-human communities that produce them cannot be treated as passive physical elements. They can be managed, but they must be managed in a way that recognizes their self-interestedness in their own persistence. 

Sources of Beach Pollution (according to NRDC)

Storm water runoff accumulates pollutants such as oil and grease, chemicals, nutrients, metals, and bacteria as it travels across land. CSOs and wet weather SSOs contain a mixture of raw sewage, industrial wastewater and storm water, and have resulted in beach closings, shellfish bed closings, and aesthetic problems. When rain water or snowmelt flows over land or impervious surfaces like paved streets, parking lots, and building roof-tops, it picks up trash, chemicals, sediment, and other pollutants such as gasoline, motor oil, antifreeze, fertilizers, pesticides and pet waste). This polluted water flows directly into storm drains, rivers, lakes, streams and the ocean.

Some sewers are designed to collect rainwater runoff, domestic sewage, and industrial wastewater in the same pipe, and are known as combined sewers. Most of the time, combined sewer systems transport all of their wastewater to a sewage treatment plant, where it is treated and then discharged to a water body. During periods of heavy rainfall or snowmelt, however, the wastewater volume in a combined sewer system can exceed the capacity of the sewer system or treatment plant. For this reason, combined sewer systems are designed to overflow occasionally and discharge excess wastewater directly to nearby streams, rivers, or other water bodies.

Wet weather discharges are end-of-pipe discharges resulting from precipitation, such as rainfall and snowmelt. They include storm water runoff, combined sewer overflows (CSOs), and wet weather sanitary sewer overflows (SSOs).

Sanitary sewer systems are designed to collect and transport all sewage that flows into them to a publicly owned treatment works (POTW). However, occasional unintentional discharges of raw sewage from municipal sanitary sewers occur in almost every system. These types of discharges are called sanitary sewer overflows (SSOs). SSOs have a variety of causes, including but not limited to blockages, line breaks, sewer defects that allow storm water and groundwater to overload the system, lapses in sewer system operation and maintenance, power failures, inadequate sewer design and vandalism.

Litter/Trash and other solid material that reach rivers, bays, estuaries and oceans eventually wash up on our beaches. It includes plastic bags, bottles and cans, cigarette filters, bottle caps, and lids. Any trash not recycled or properly thrown away can eventually reach our beaches when it is carried by the rain into sewers, storm drains, or inland rivers and streams, and then can flow all the way to the ocean. Other sources include people at the beach leaving behind their trash, and fishermen losing or discarding fishing nets and lines in the ocean.

Before plastics become microplastics: Marine debris is a persistent pollution problem that reaches throughout the entire ocean and Great Lakes. Our ocean and waterways are polluted with a wide variety of marine debris, ranging from tiny microplastics, smaller than 5 mm, to derelict fishing gear and abandoned vessels. Worldwide, hundreds of marine species have been negatively impacted by marine debris, which can harm or kill an animal when it is ingested or they become entangled, and can threaten the habitats they depend on. Marine debris can also interfere with navigation safety and potentially pose a threat to human health. All marine debris comes from people with a majority of it originating on land and entering the ocean and Great Lakes through littering, poor waste management practices, storm water discharge, and extreme natural events such as tsunamis and hurricanes. Some debris, such as derelict fishing gear, can also come from ocean-based sources. This lost or abandoned gear is a major problem because it can continue to capture and kill wildlife, damage sensitive habitats, and even compete with and damage active fishing gear. Local, national, and international efforts are needed to address this environmental problem. The Save our Seas Act of 2018 amends and reauthorizes the Marine Debris Act to promote international action, authorize cleanup and response actions, and increase coordination among federal agencies on this topic. 

Vessel discharges: Incidental discharges from all kinds of vessels are a source of pollution that can affect our beaches. Such discharges include trash, fishing gear, ballast water, and water from sinks and showers. The way EPA controls these discharges depends on the type of vessel: recreational vessels are covered under the Clean Boating Act, and commercial vessels are covered under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit program. Discharges from Recreational Vessels (Covered by Cleaning Boating Act) Photo of boats at the dock A recreational vessel is manufactured or used primarily for pleasure. This includes canoes, kayaks, motor boats, yachts and sailboats. Ships and recreational boats at sea sometimes intentionally or accidentally dump trash directly into the ocean. This trash can include food containers and fishing gear like nets, ropes, and light sticks. The Clean Boating Act is an amendment of the Clean Water Act (CWA) that requires EPA to develop management practices to help limit the amount of pollution discharged from recreational vessels into our nation's waters. Discharges from Commercial Vessels (Covered by EPA Permit Program) There are different requirements to control discharges from commercial vessels, including those used to transport paying passengers. EPA currently regulates incidental discharges from the normal operation of non-recreational vessels with the Vessel General Permit (VGP). Such discharges include ballast water, bilgewater, graywater (e.g., water from sinks, showers), and anti-foulant paints.

Nitrogen and Phosphorus (Nutrients): One of America’s most widespread and costly problems is excess nitrogen and phosphorus in the air and water. Nitrogen and phosphorus are nutrients that are natural parts of aquatic ecosystems. These elements support the growth of algae and aquatic plants, which provide food and habitat for fish, shellfish and smaller organisms that live in water. But when too much nitrogen and phosphorus enter the environment — usually from a wide range of human activities — the air and water can become polluted, resulting in serious environmental and human health issues, and impacting the economy. Animal manure, excess fertilizer applied to crops and fields, and soil erosion make agriculture one of the largest sources of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution in the country. Other sources include stormwater, wastewater, fossil fuels, fertilizers for home use, and yard and pet waste.

The impact of Beach Pollution

Public health: Polluted beaches pose a serious health risk for people who come in contact with dirty water or sand. Ten percent of all water samples collected in 2013 from 3,500 coastal and Great Lakes beaches failed to meet the EPA’s most restrictive benchmark for swimmer safety. The EPA estimates that up to 3.5 million people get sick from being in contact with sewage while swimming; children are the most vulnerable because they tend to swallow more water. Bacteria, fertilizers, animal and human waste, and trash can cause a range of illnesses for beachgoers. The most common is an upset stomach, but swimmers can also suffer neurological disorders, respiratory ailments, pinkeye, earaches, meningitis, and hepatitis. People with compromised immune systems, small children, and seniors may even be at risk of death. Because there is a lag between contact with contaminated waters and onset of symptoms, most people don’t even realize it was the beach that caused their illness. One study found that people can get sick without even going into the water—contact with polluted beach sand was enough exposure to sicken them. A notable example of the effect that polluted water can have on public health is the Santa Cruz River at the Arizona–Mexico border. Replenished by discharge from a nearby wastewater treatment plant, the river has been slowly polluted by sewage as the decades-old waste pipeline deteriorated. The governor of Arizona had to declare a state of emergency in 2017 as heavy rainfall ruptured the pipeline. After the breach, health officials found that E.coli bacteria levels were so high during an initial test, they exceeded capabilities of field equipment and surpassed recommended levels. Border patrol agents have suffered chemical burns from wading through the water due to the presence of industrial waste, including heavy metals, chemical solvents, and even DDT. The cost to replace the wastewater line is about $80 million, but finding the funding is proving difficult. The Arizona state government allocated $2.6 million in 2019 to help repair the sewer line, and a funding bill was introduced in Congress the same year with the goal of directing $4 million to cover future maintenance costs. There is another health concern in addition to sewage contamination: Harmful algal blooms (HABs) can also cause serious illness in humans. Several species of phytoplankton produce toxins that can cause serious and potentially life-threatening symptoms in people who come in contact with or ingest them. Effects can include paralysis, seizures, vomiting, and cardiovascular problems, among others. 

Animals: It is estimated that beach pollution affects more than 800 species of wildlife around the world. More than 100,000 seabirds, sea turtles, seals, and other marine mammals die each year after ingesting plastic or getting entangled in it. Animals can easily mistake floating plastic for food, causing them to choke, sustain an internal injury, or starve. The ingested plastic can then move through the food chain, eventually reaching the stomachs of seafood-eating humans. Plastic pollution has become so overwhelming that it is even affecting sea turtles’ reproduction rates because it alters the temperature of the sand where incubation typically occurs. HABs are also detrimental to marine wildlife. HABs consume oxygen when they die and decompose, creating dead zones—areas with little or no oxygen. This not only kills off feeding sources for larger aquatic animals but also destroys habitats. Some types of HABs also damage or clog fish gills or block sunlight for beneficial algae and seagrasses. In 2015, parts of the U.S. West Coast experienced significant impacts of a large-scale HAB. The toxic bloom affected wildlife, including anchovies, seabirds, whales, and sea lions, and resulted in closures of recreational and commercial fisheries in California, Oregon, and Washington. The bloom involved the proliferation of Pseudo-nitzschia diatoms, a type of microscopic alga that produces a neurotoxin called domoic acid. 

The economic toll: In 2013 an NRDC report found that beaches in the United States had experienced more than 20,000 closings and advisory days in the previous year due to pollution and contamination. It found that more than 80 percent of the closings were related to near-shore bacteria levels that violated public health standards. Closed beaches directly impact the economies of coastal destinations: Americans take more than 900 million trips to coastal areas and spend around $44 billion on those trips every year. Beachside cities and economic activities associated with the ocean play a sizable role in the U.S. economy. Having these beaches closed due to pollution not only ruins the experience of beachgoers but adversely impacts local businesses and the tourism industry in the region.