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USGS Congressional Briefing—Beach Health: Safe to Swim? (presentation highlights)
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Beach Health Cong

Deanna Archuleta: Thanks for being here this morning. I'm Deanna Archuleta. I'm the acting assistant secretary for Water and Science in the Department of Interior.

As you know, a day at the beach is something that we all think about, my script says, from time to time. But I have to tell you honestly, I think about it more often than from time to time. But a day at the beach should be something that's really fun and safe and really interesting and that we all enjoy. Unfortunately, it's not always like that. We have things like bacteria and other disease-causing agents that might wind their way into our recreational waters. These are carried there by storm water runoff, sewer outflows or other pollutant sources.

The results then are beach closures which nobody likes, but they're necessary in order to protect public health. Not only do such closures ruin a really great day at the beach, but the bigger picture is the water recreation and the tourism associated with it and what happens to those beach visitations.


The goal of USGS' Beach Health program is to increase our ability to effectively monitor and assess recreational water quality to provide beach managers with reliable science-based information for making an informed and accurate decisions about when they need to close the beach and whether those are necessary in order to protect public health. For over two decades, the USGS has conducted beach health research in the Great Lakes and has worked with our partners on both US coasts.

Today our speakers will focus on some key issues that are affecting our beaches throughout the country. Our first speaker today is Dr. Shannon Briggs, a senior toxicologist and state beach coordinator for the Water Bureau of Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality.

Dr. Shannon Briggs: Hi, welcome. Thanks for being here this morning. And we're going to talk about some pretty serious issues that affect public health and our environment. Up here in the Great Lakes in Michigan, we're head over heels in love with our water. We're not more than just a few minutes from any water, we play in it all year-round, I know even in the wintertime. The point is we don't just like to look at it, and we do drink our beach water. We have our intakes out in a lot of the waters, but we also play in it. And so, we know the drinking water is safe because it's going through treatments and stuff. But we don't always know about the water that we're playing in, and that's what we want to make sure of.


You can measure things like salmonella or botulism or enterococci or clostridium perfringens or campylobacter. If you want to see what E. coli looks like, it's a stuffed animal at That's what it looks like. It's one of our favorites. But the part about all of those different microorganisms that you can measure, they all make us sick. They'll get you nausea or diarrhea and all sorts of whatnot. It's expensive to monitor all those things. And so, what we do is we monitor for E. coli and enterococci. And what we found is that in the freshwater lakes or freshwater systems, E. coli has been an indicator of choice. And enterococci has been the indicator of choice for the ocean beaches, for marine waters.

In Michigan, we have a state law that says if you offer beach to the public, you have to have a sign on it that says whether or not the beach is monitored or not, and if it is monitored, where you're going to find the results. So, all those bacteria results that you get from those different methods, you're going to post them at the beach with a sign. With the next slide you can see that I helped design a software called BeachGuard that allows all of the health departments to enter in their beaches and their beach data and it's available 24/7. You can close the beach. All of this information for all of our beaches is on this website.


And you'll notice this is just this week. We already have some closures. And the unique thing about Michigan is that we monitor some of our inland lakes as well. I know they look like this - they say warning bacteria levels exceed limits for safe swimming, but in reality this is what we should say. We should say that, "Water was bad yesterday. I don't know about today. You should come back tomorrow and I'll tell you about today." So, you come back the next day and the scientist would say, "Water was bad again yesterday. We still don't know about today. We can tell you that tomorrow." So, if you're patient, you come back the next day. "Well, if you swam yesterday, you were OK. The water was fine. Today might be OK, too, but we won't sample again until next Thursday."

So, that's in reality what we're dealing with. What I want to show is what happens now for my beach when it's closed. And I don't have that accurate information. So, here's what happens. With the next slide, what happens, the public immediately responds with "why". "Why did you close my beach? Who's responsible? Who did that?" and "When is it going to reopen? When am I going to be able to go swim again?"


And to give you an idea of who shows up, that's a picture of a public meeting for one of the beaches that were closed in Michigan. It got escalated to the next slide. State Representative McDowell got involved. And then he contacted Congressman Bart Stupak. You can see there's a picture of Bart Stupak out on the boat doing an inspection with the others. And then that led to the next letter from Senator Levin who wrote, saying that they had to do some more work for some of the other people that were involved.

This is nothing against American Samoa. It's a beautiful island, beautiful beaches. But if you look at the number of beaches that American Samoa has and Michigan has, I'm expected as a state to meet some of the same performance criteria as American Samoa, but they get more money than I do, and they have 126 miles of shoreline and I've got over 3,000. So, it has caused some huge discrepancies and some problems. Even though there are those discrepancies, some of the communities have made some significant progress. And those are just some stars in the Great Lakes that have done some really great work and they're sharing that work.


And with the next slide, you can see that the EPA helped us by giving us half a million dollars to look at 61 beaches that had been closed. And the reason they were closed nobody knew why. And the key point with that is to find out why are those beaches closing. You can see that before the study, 84% of the time they were unknown, but after the study it went down to 24%. So, that meant that we were finding the sources of those problems pretty well. And it came down to about $8500. If you look at the dots, those are the locations that did this study.

And with the next slide, the neat thing that has happened is even without the half a million dollars to get us started, the Great Lakes Regional Collaboration is helping us to promote the use of the Beach Sanitary Survey for all beaches even without the funding. And what we're finding is that all of the communities are picking this up because it's helping them identify the sources that are causing problems. And one of the ways that we're getting the word out is, like we said, Richard and I, we co-founded the Great Lakes Beach Association and that is the website.


We stay connected to each other and we broke down the walls. It goes now to New Zealand and Scotland and the United Kingdom and other places. So, we have got over 800 members and we all stay connected with our beach information this way. On the next slide, just to give you an idea, just from the Great Lakes because this is where I am from, in Michigan, you can see that all those different states have a different number of beaches, but we're given similar amounts of money. And that's why I need to find some big partners that can help me because if I'm using the same amount of money as Indiana or Illinois for their less than 50 or so or 100 beaches and I've got 600, I've got to be really creative. And that's why I'm here to look for more partners and I'm really happy with the USGS' help.

Because one of the things across the nation with all this monitoring going on, a lot of the beaches are moving to standards and that's great news. But as you can see, approximately 68% of the beaches are staying open most of the time. With the next slide, here's the bad news. About 30% of the beaches are not able to stay open. They're closing and that's a problem. And the whole reason that we're doing all of these is because my daughter, when she's going out to the beach and playing in the sand and the water, I don't want to have to take her to the emergency room later that night.

So, thank you very much for your attention.


Deanna Archuleta: Our next speaker is Heather Morehead, beaches coordinator for the Maryland Department of Environmental Science Services Administration.

Heather Morehead: Good morning. My name is Heather Morehead. I work at Maryland Department of the Environment and the Beaches Program, as she said.

In an EPA speech guidance document, coastal waters are defined as waters which have an unimpaired natural connection with the open sea. So, beaches along the Chesapeake Bay or along the Atlantic Coast are funded by the BEACH Act. Inland waters are not funded by BEACH Act. Monitoring water quality and notifying the public is one of the main roles of the Maryland Beaches Program. Local health departments monitor the beaches at a frequency that depends on how much the beach is used, the proximity of the beach to pollution sources, and other factors that may affect the water quality.


If the water quality results where the beach exceeded criteria or a non-pollution source exists, the local health department posts a notification using a sign at the beach and other means, depending on which county it is. Some counties use hotlines or their own county website. They also notify Maryland Department of the Environment so that we can post the notification information online. And the webpage there that we use is And here is a graphic created by a Maryland Department of the Environment field office staff. He calculated the amount of dog waste produced in a community near a beach was 3 tons of dog waste per month.

Here, two photos of sites near beaches where real and potential pollution sources were located. The left photo shows the result of a broken sewage pipe, which was addressed immediately. And on the right is a photo of a pipe which was found a few weeks ago near a beach, and it's in the process of being addressed.


There are issues Maryland Beaches Program faces. One of these is explaining the complexity of using enterococci and E. coli as indicator bacteria. Enterococci and E. coli are bacteria found in the intestines of warm-blooded animals. When the indicator bacteria are detected in waters affected by human fecal pollution, then there is an elevated risk that human pathogens are present. Although some bacteria are pathogenic, enterococci and E. coli do not necessarily cause illness.

Also, Maryland Department of the Environment has questions about risks associated with swimming in natural waters. The risk of becoming sick from non-human waste has not been quantified. If the enterococci levels exceed the criteria because of the resident goose population, will people get sick? How many? These are questions that need to be answered.


Another issue is that there are studies that have shown that the indicator bacteria can grow in sediments without a source. And also, laboratory analyses do not distinguish between sources or identify if they are from re-growth in sediments.

Another issue that beach managers face is that approximately 30 hours can pass from the time a sample is collected to the time beach managers compose the information. Water quality does not tell the whole story what is happening. When a beach manager sees elevated bacteria levels, they should consider what is the source of the indicator bacteria. This emphasizes the importance of sanitary surveys, which are a critical tool for identifying and mitigating sources of fecal pollution. With this tool, the beach manager can look at both water quality data and the sources of the indicator bacteria when assessing a beach.

Also, inland beaches do not receive federal funding simply because the beaches are located in the western part of the state instead of the eastern part in Maryland. This is a difficult message to explain to local health departments of the western counties.


In the studies on which EPA's 1986 criteria were based, there were no human pollution sources. Some waters in the US, including many in Maryland, are generally not impacted by untreated sewage sources such as failing infrastructure or sewer systems or failing septic systems but rather from non-point sources such as pathways and wildlife. This would cause beach managers to question how applicable EPA's criteria is to these waters.

EPA is currently conducting various water quality studies to develop criteria and rapid testing methods. Maryland Beaches Program has some thoughts and concerns about the methods being developed. If a rapid testing method is developed, how frequently should a beach manager test the water? Will hourly changes and water quality notifications leave bathers to question or disregard notifications placed by beach managers? Also, some molecular methods being tested are of concern because they do not differentiate between viable and non-viable cells. If there is a chlorine-treated sewage effluent, will a notification be posted even though there are no pathogenic cells present?


In conclusion, Maryland Beaches Program supports groups who are considering pollution source surveys as a tool to protect public health, research to quantify risks from non-human sources, and research that establishes that fecal indicator bacteria can be present even when pollution sources are not.

Deanna Archuleta: Thank you, Heather. Our final speaker today is Richard Whitman. He's our own USGS ecologist and he oversees the Great Lakes Science Center.

Dr. Richard Whitman: Thank you very much. Now it's very hard to overemphasize the importance of our surface waters in the United States and the value that we have economically. It's pride and recreation, quality of our life. I think as soon as you mention Hawaii, Southern California, Miami, Texas Coast, Chicago, you immediately think of the beaches.


We have many partners. When I walked in here today, I noticed three pictures. I had seen them before. But on one picture, we're seeing the oceanographic team in Michigan City working on currents with us on a barge. And we see National Parks Service, bottom left-hand side, which we worked closer with on the Lake Shore beaches. On top, we're working with Cuyahoga Valley and the Ohio Water District. So, it isn't something that takes care at a vacuum. We're all working together, bringing our own talents.

And from the local to the international, here are some of the examples I just thought of on the way over as I wrote this thing up. Los Angeles had a terrible sewage spill. We were there, helping Cleveland, Detroit and their issues and Milwaukee, Chicago. And then, we worked on the county health level. We work with all the states that are willing to let us work with them. We work extremely closely with other federal agencies, particularly EPA and now National Park Service, other interior engineers and so forth. And even at the international level with the International Joint Commission, fulfilling our treaty obligations, World Health Organization, and especially Canada, who is very, very important partners with us.


What have we done lately? Well, one of the things we discovered that turned out to be pretty important is that we found that there was an awful lot of E. coli and enterococci in the beach sands. And then, many of our so-called closures were actually coming from the sand and not from sewage, which caused a great dilemma for regulatory agencies. So, that's the kind of stuff we just published that work.

The other thing that we did on the forefront, we got incredible cooperation, Michigan state, University of Minnesota, University of Wisconsin. All are cooperating on sea grants, coastal zone and all kinds of stuff. There's this thing called Cladophora, which piles up on the beaches as it starts to die. You can see Julie Kentzman in Wisconsin trying to rake it off the beach. And it starts to die and it stinks. It smells just like sewage and it degrades the property value. People can't access it. Birds come in there, and what we've recently discovered is that it has as much indicator species like E. coli and enterococci as sewage does because it's a great habitat, like Alger.


And in recent years, we've discovered pathogens as well, such as Clostridium perfringens causes gangrene. Campylobacter and Salmonella, everybody knows about. Even last year we published an article that showed that botulism grows in these, the same botulism which were killing all the birds, avian botulism in the Michigan state. So, we think there's connection but we were just at the beginning of the research.

Next slide shows how we look at the actual delivery of the bacteria all to the beaches. You can see on the top right-hand side how the effluent coming out on Calumet River is closing all the beaches, the West Beach, the Indiana Dunes, Ogden Dunes. Here's New York. We did the same thing. And we did the same thing in Ohio and Milwaukee. I think we did that in Detroit River as well. And so, that's part of our modeling efforts and we get cooperation. At this particular study, we had five agencies cooperating.


The next slide demonstrates the efforts that we're trying to do on real-time predictive modeling. As we said, we know what the bacteria was 24 hours ago or 30 hours ago, but that doesn't do us any good since the bacteria changes 5 minutes at a time, 1 hour at a time. So, you can go out and we can get you the measurement at 7 o'clock, 8 o'clock in the morning. I guarantee you by 12 o'clock, the beaches might indeed have been opened because it decreases during the day.

So, virtually the numbers that we're doing, and EPA and everyone realizes this, are not what they should be. Very little confidence. They were actually giving us real-time measurements using surrogates like wind speed or wave height or turbidity and giving people a same-day reading. Now with the help of oceans and a research priority plan, we have a prototype that gives you 24/7. So, you can go to the Web and see what the probability of exceedances are at any time a day or night. What we want to do and heading towards is forecasting so you could call up just like the weather, find out what the weather's going to be like on Saturday and to make your weekend decisions. And managers can do so at the same time. So, that's the future.


The next slide is at a regional level where we're backing up and saying, "Hey, these beaches seem to be going up and down together. There's something much more generic going on." So, one beach goes up in Door County. They all tend to go up. And so, we found very good models at a regional level. Just think of the economy and the usefulness to the general public of being able to predict, say, the whole Chicago area beach conditions. It's also teaching us a lot about how beaches behave and what causes their closures.

Next slide looks at another avenue, the one that is pretty much the EPA's chosen avenue because of their needs and criteria. It's rapid methods. Being able to develop a method that can be done not in 24 hours but in 2 to 3 hours. And laboratories across the nation of USGS and of EPA and others were looking for indicators that are specific. We actually have now some very good markers that are only found in human sewage. And that's a big, big step forward. It saves us a lot of money. We stopped chasing ghosts.


Do we have one more? Yeah, future needs. So, I have gone over these. We need real risk-based scientifically bona fide criteria worthy of public confidence. We need to know where the pathogens are. We need a good relationship between the pathogens and the indicators. We need to know what the health implications are. We need these epidemiological studies. We need to tie everything we're doing to risk.

We need to know what the role of the environment is, not just sewage. We now know that the soils, the sand, the animal life, the currents and all the stuff are all integrated together as an ecosystem. We need better and faster methods. I already talked about that. That's certainly the future. Someday we will be measuring the path and it's just around the corner. We need better predictions. I know that there are some modelers in here. And they can tell you, we're not at the level we would like to be for modeling a prediction. We still got ways to go.

And then finally, I think this has been emphasized and know it can be over-emphasized, we need communication. We need communication within managers, between us and the public. And we need to be able to get the word out onto the Web, onto signs. And we need to educate the public.


Title: USGS Congressional Briefing—Beach Health: Safe to Swim? (presentation highlights)


When a local beach closes for health reasons, people start wondering, "Is it safe to swim?" USGS science can help local beach managers understand the sources of contamination and the kinds of contaminants that may affect human life.

Watch a highlights slideshow of a June 19, 2009, briefing before Congressional staff members, news media, and other interested parties in which the USGS and partners from Michigan and Maryland discuss how they are working to provide the science needed to ensure that our beaches are healthy places for people to enjoy.

Captions will be available soon.

Location: Washington, DC, USA

Date Taken: 6/19/2009

Length: 0:00

Video Producer: David Hebert , U.S. Geological Survey

Note: This video has been released into the public domain by the U.S. Geological Survey for use in its entirety. Some videos may contain pieces of copyrighted material. If you wish to use a portion of the video for any purpose, other than for resharing/reposting the video in its entirety, please contact the Video Producer/Videographer listed with this video. Please refer to the USGS Copyright section for how to credit this video.

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