Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

USGS Congressional Briefing—Beach Health: Safe to Swim? (Q and A Session)

Right-click and save to download

Detailed Description

Listen to a question and answer session following 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.

A highlights slideshow with audio of the briefing itself can be seen at:
Audio highlights (without slides) can be heard at:


Public Domain.


Audience: The beaches reauthorizations - anything to have a two-hour window posting that information. Is that going to benefit your organization functionally? So it works with the agency so different states and sources that quite confused this issues.

Speaker 1: We may all speak to that. The problem with the two-hour test is that the technology is not there yet. And it’s close. Probably a four-hour test limit, a limit of four hours might be reasonable. The other thing about a two-hour test is it’s completely unaffordable for Michigan.

The equipment to do a two-hour test costs $40,000 to $60,000 per piece of equipment. I have 83 counties or I have 41 coastal counties. I can’t afford to monitor my beaches more than once a week for eight weeks in the summer, let alone by a $60,000 piece of equipment. And there are some other problems with the quantitative PCR method that seems to be the frontrunner, which is the only one that’s coming in under close to two hours.


And so that’s why I’m looking at the two-hour test as an expensive lateral shift because we’re still measuring indicators. And if I can afford to do E. coli the incubator method and start using the predictive models, that’s a more affordable solution for me than a rapid test right now. Heather will probably talk about some of the – once you have a rapid test, how often do you have to test then? So that will be – probably another comment.

Heather: Right. If you did have a two-hour test, how often will you be posting at a beach? You could maybe do it several times a day and then our swimmers are going to be thinking, “What’s going on here? Is the water quality that crazy?” I think they need to answer how often a beach would need to be sampled and how often the notification would we need to be posted because you could end up scaring beach-goers unnecessarily; especially if the indicator isn’t that much better than the current one. I think it needs to be significantly better than the current one.


Speaker 2: From a technical standpoint, if you’re like the city of Los Angeles, or Chicago, Miami, you probably could order and afford a $45,000 machine and operate through your 35, 40 beaches that way. But if you got a municipality, it won’t work. And the other problem issue that’s well known is that we’re not measuring the live cells. We’re only measuring DNA.

So a sewage treatment plant can release completely disinfectant water and it still turn up just as positive. And that DNA would then can pass over to a beach and still close it. And we don’t know how old that DNA is or really where it came from. So that’s a big issue. It’s certainly an issue among the operators and some regulators as well.


Audience: So a lot of DNA types of tests you have earlier and have been promising. Is it something we currently have?

Speaker 1: Yeah. I think the ATP test is what we’re talking about. You’re measuring live cellular organisms because they’ll have the adenosine triphosphate which is our little energy bank. And so when you break those open, you’re only going to be able to break open the live cells that will release the energy that will cause the fluorescence. And so you’ll be measuring live bacteria.

That is something that Michigan has been watching in part because some of the original work was done at the University of Michigan but USGS has been able to pick that up and work with it. And I’m really excited that USGS is working with that and I think you may want to talk about the partnership and the MP studies that that’s coming.


Speaker 2: Well, we’re lucky. In Southern California, we have very strong organization there who have worked real closely with the EPA and they’ve got well-funded – they’re looking at a whole variety of tests and evaluating them there. And like Jeanette said, Ohio is very much connected to that. But in the horizon, far horizon, we had this, again, DNA-based immunoassays that can look at hundreds, not thousands – I saw one from Lawrence Livermore that looks at 30,000 reactions at a time; looking at all the possible proteins that are associated with pathogens.

So that’s the future. But it’s still another decade off. So, no, we’re not there and we still need a lot of work and resources dedicated to that development. It’s probably one of the areas that are not getting enough attention.

Audience: How about the issues going on beginning with USGS and the organizations in terms of actually improving the water quality. In other words, it comes to us and other organizations that fill in and improve the quality of life.


Heather: I can’t speak too much to what you guys are doing. But in Maryland, pollution sewage surveys are a critical tool in finding the sources. Like you said, you can monitor all day but it’s not going to make the water better. So we work with our local health departments and we have a new system that incorporates GIS and GPS to help put it on the map where it is. And then the local health departments will work with whoever or whatever is the source of the problem to mitigate it.

So it is important because you can see a number on our piece of paper saying this water is no good. But you need to know where it’s coming from. It could be a marsh or wildlife; it could be something natural and that may not be as pathogenic. So it’s an important thing to know where it’s coming from.


Speaker 1: Just recently we had a national beach conference out in California and David Poole from Florida was there. He’s the beach coordinator for the state of Florida. And he made some comments similar to what we’re saying about all these things happening. And I know that he does want to see more coordination with all of those inter-agencies and things because that makes sense.

A lot of these beaches started getting monitored from the BEACH Act funding that EPA gave out to the states. And that was great. That was a great start. The problem was a lot of people like me, we had no idea what to do. There’s no beach monitoring class. And the problem with the beach is it’s a consistently dynamically-changing piece of water that a lot of things are impacting it.

And so you can’t just go out there and say, “Oh, I know the answer. There it is.” I had to partner with some of the people from USGS like I needed a hydrologist, a microbiologist, I needed a manager; I needed all of these different disciplines to help come to that and that’s why it’s important.


So when we start working together, we can get to that point where we can make a difference. At least, in Michigan, what we have to do is I have to evaluate all of the beach data every two years. And in that, I have to write the 305(b) or 303 (d) lists. Every state has to write this Impaired Waters List. I have 40 beaches on my Impaired Waters. That gets reported to EPA.

Then there’s some funding that comes along for that to fix those beaches. And then, at that point, I need to find the partners like in hydrologist, like Richard, or microbiologist, or some of these other people to help me find these sources. Because the whole point about all these beaches is we don’t want to monitor the bacteria.

We want to be able to say, no, it’s fine. Just like you go up to a drinking water faucet, you expect the water to be clean so you can drink it. I want to expect my beaches to be completely clean. I will know all of my sources, I will have mitigated all my sources, and a lot of our beaches are at that point. But we have about a third of them that are not.


And so that’s why we need that tri-agency and its states and locals and non-profits and everybody. I mean, we could go on and on but that’s the key point. We have to leverage everything we’ve got to get to these questions because you need more than one person.

Speaker 2: And part of USGS is working very closely with the University of Miami and University of Southern Florida as well doing source identification and some of these new technologies we’re talking about. We’re participating in Gulf of Mexico Alliance. I was in some of those early meetings. I think we’ve put on some workshops.

We consult with them. One of the biggest questions they’ve had is, was closing down our beaches at the Panhandle. We said we know we’re closing down your beaches. Then you can do something like bringing the core of engineers who’d so some remediation or deal with some of the sewage treatment plants that could just roll up, whatever it might be.


The other thing Florida wanted us, especially the Foreign Science Center, want to know from us is how did you put this Great Lakes Beach Association together because we’re not talking the same way. We don’t have this coalition of managers, public and agencies working so close together. We started with 12 people, Shannon and I. We now have 950. I have to give her a new update on our membership.

And that’s been the key to the success in our Great Lakes. This is an organization that just – it was a noble, spontaneous because we all have the same interest. So, yes, we’re working pretty closely; not as closely as we’d like to but this could template there.


Audience: You’re talking about sewage contamination. How long ......... ?

Speaker 1: Yeah, after you close a beach and you get everybody upset, a lot of things happen. I’ve got incidences right now. We have -- the DEQ is suing an entire township in Michigan because they have sewage from their septic tanks floating around in their backyard and it got into the drains and ditches, and it’s been closing their beaches for a long time. We finally said that’s enough. It’s illegal. You cannot do that. And they got mad. Now, it’s in the Court of Appeals.

And now all the constituents are getting upset. And the way I think of it is that we didn’t need to have the BEACH Act if the Clean Water Act was working. So I look at the BEACH Act as an audit of the Clean Water Act because your beach is -- that’s basically where all the water ends up.


Because we like to swim in places where the current is low, it’s not flowing too fast, we can play out there with our kids; and it’s comfortable, it’s warm, it’s peaceful, it’s nice unless you’re a surfer. So that’s where the beach water ends up. And then if you have a river or anything coming near that beach, there’s a definite impact. And that’s why I like some of the work USGS has done right now is that they are looking at river models and how the river comes out and has an interaction at the confluence of an open shoreline.

And they’ve done that three different times in the Great Lakes. Now, I’m sure you guys have been working with other partners to take that, to even marine beaches like Los Angeles when they had their big spill. So there’s so much going on at the watershed level that makes an impact at the beach. One of the key things that I’ve been looking at at all of our beach data is that we’re not seeing a chronic contamination problem. We’re seeing a spike contamination problem. And what that tells me is it’s a storm water issue.


So the things in my state that I’m going after are storm water issues. We’re using a lot of the 319 Grants to help improve communities in how they handle their storm water Because whenever it rains, you might as well look at my beach website. I’ll have up to 23 beaches closed in a day. And that’s the problem.

So, yes, there’s a lot of different things happening so when you have a beach closure or you have issues with a beach, you have to do the source tracking right now. Again, Sagana Bay, the bay isn’t any beach along an open shore, things tend to blow away and then it’s kind of convenient that that happens. But when you’re in a bay or in a lake, you’re stuck. The water can’t go someplace else.

So if there’s a contamination problem, you’re stuck with it. And that’s the point where we’re dealing with right now is when these contamination sources come in to the bay and stay at the beach and they don’t go away, we got to find out where did it come from. It’s agriculture, it’s pets, it’s geese, it’s the sand; it’s everything. And that leads us to the next question of risk.


Do we want to be afraid of the indicator bacteria that are multiplying like crazy in the sand that’ll never get us hurt? No, I don’t care about that. But I can’t tell the difference right now between those E. coli and the E. coli coming out of a sewage drain. So that’s our septic tank. And that’s why a lot of us, when we issue a closure or were stuck with these beaches that are close all the time, due to some contamination sources or non-point source storm water, it’s a huge headache. And that’s why we need, again, we need those partners.

I need the local, I need the community, I need the environmental health officer, I need the sanitary survey information, I probably will be going to need some lawyers. We got to talk to the county board, we got to talk to the mayor, the mayors get all upset; and so there’s a lot of interaction. And especially, the one beach that closed, it closed right across the river from Canada and so we had an international incident.

And so we had to work with embassies, we had to work with the provincial government and the federal government, and that has been a three-year process. So the beach is now clean, the water is great, but it has been three years to get through all of that. So these are significant problems, yeah.


Heather: You would ask about how upset people get. I think it sort of depends on how big the problem and how it really comes from the money sometimes. How much it would take to correct it. But we do have some – I can’t remember finding source but to correct septic tank systems and make them better to remove nitrous and phosphorous -- bay trust fund. So and that’s just Chesapeake Bay, specific.

But there is funding sometimes to help people who have an issue. And also on our Maryland Healthy Beaches website, we also have tips and suggestion to people because I think a lot of people don’t even know that little things make a difference like picking up their pet waste and making sure their big tank is functioning right. I think they think it’s somebody else’s problem but it’s really a community kind of thing. So when you try to get out there…


Speaker 2: I’m going to answer the question next but let me do one quick follow up especially for our marine friends here. Two things on cladophora. One, it’s so important to see this as an ecosystem level because what caused the second episode of cladophora is when the zebra mussel had part because of marine nutrients clarifying the water. So we increased the transparency and these cladophora that moved out and more risk because of more lights out. Once we mess with ecosystem, we mess with the whole lake.

And so that also emphasizes the need for the multidisciplinary and multi-agency approach. The other thing I wanted to let you know is when I was in Europe last week, I met with some people from Great Britain that had great evidence that the exact same thing is happening with the marine rock.


And so we’re actually writing a paper with our collaborators from Europe with the marine algae – it looks even worse than our freshwater stuff in terms of growing this bacteria. And with Stanford and UC, Berkeley, we’re writing a paper, and try to put all these algae information together and show there’s a universal phenomenon and not just a Great Lakes thing.

Audience: In terms of connecting with things that are happening, are you running into regulatory hurdles or do you have agencies that are not cooperating?


Speaker 1: I don’t think it’s so much a regulatory question that things are bad. I mean, nobody’s going to argue that sewage is bad. But the regulation part is we have country health departments that have gone out and documented that there’s a spilled septic tank and they filed it because there’s no money to do anything about it. That’s the regulatory hang-up right there.

Yeah, you can condemn that house but you’re going to have to condemn the entire neighborhood and then you will get a call from the mayor. And that’s what the country health department are faced with is that they can go out and do these inspections and say, “Yes, these things are bad and these things are not going to work,” and then they can condemn the house.

But right now, the way things are – and unfortunately, that’s why we are suing an entire township because it was so flagrantly bad, they are taking us back to the Court of Appeals and it’s back and forth. So I think the regulatory framework is there but the enforcement is the hang-up. There’s not enough money to fix the problems or we have to be careful and choose our battles which ones we’re going after. So there’s a blind eye to a lot of things.


Heather: Most of the beaches that are on the coast are the ones that we tend to focus our shoreline surveys on because there’s less distance. So usually, if there’s an upstream impact, it’s on the water. If that were the case, we would work with the local health department and they would have correspondence with the homeowner and work to get it fixed. I think we have a good regulatory system in place to correct problems.

Speaker 1: Another follow up. I forgot about this. Our wastewater treatment plants are doing fairly except for the occasional storm water event that overflow their volume capacity. But we’ve had a lot of – it used to be that the beach was close always because of the wastewater treatment plant. But in almost all of the cases, I’ve gone back and check all of the data from the wastewater treatment plant, and it’s clean. The regulatory effort on the wastewater treatment plants is working and they are not the cause of beach closures in most cases.


It’s usually the storm waters' non-point source. It’s kind of like we got the big problem cleaned up and now we’ve got all these little things that are coming at us that are difficult to track down.

Audience: I have a comment on the Department of Environment. And if there’s a public health issue we have found in a political level and if they can't address the problem with their resources, then it goes to the state level and you can go to court. It can be thrown out, but usually if it's the public health importance, it gets addressed fairly quickly. So you don't see the same problems in Michigan, in Maryland.

But we are seeing what you just mentioned that the US Department beaches that have advisories or are on Perry Broder's list. There is a storm coming up. It’s not in the septic systems, it’s not sewage treatment infrastructure or any sewage quality once it gets treated. And that’s one of the real challenges that we face in our beaches because we still got to face that public crowd that says why is my beach closed and why can't I swim. And are you doing something about it? And sometimes we just don’t know what to do.


Speaker 1: Right. And then some of our county health departments, one in particular, he looked at all of his closures for one summer. He was wrong 100% at the time. And he had to tell his mayor that. He had to tell the county board that. So you can imagine their reaction was why are you monitoring the beach that much? Just stop. And he’s like, “Well, we can’t do that.”

And so we’re digging right now for models trying to figure out – because the whole point of if you can make a model work, that meant you found all the factors that affect. That meant you found all the contamination sources so you can stop them.


And then hopefully, you’re just left with some of the natural ones that may not be so bad. So that’s where we’re all working towards…

Show Transcript