On a warm day, the waters of Puget Sound present an alluring invitation to wade, swim, or SCUBA dive. Although many of our beaches meet high standards for water quality, every year beaches are closed to the public because of high bacteria counts.
In 2011, one quarter of our monitored beaches were unsafe for swimming because they failed to meet water quality standards. Swimming in contaminated waters can result in a variety of illnesses and other unpleasant outcomes.
As our region grows in population, we can expect both an increase in the demand for recreational swimming opportunities, and in the sources of contamination from wastewater and stormwater runoff.
Clean water, free of harmful bacteria or chemicals, is an important goal in our efforts to restore and protect Puget Sound. We want the water to be as clean as possible so that we can enjoy the Sound without worrying about our health.
Conditions of swimming beaches
The swimming beaches indicator reflects marine water quality conditions in areas heavily used for recreation. Conditions are measured using the percent of monitored Puget Sound swimming beaches that meet EPA water quality standards for the fecal bacteria enterococcus. Swimming beaches not meeting enterococci water quality standards indicate poor water quality that can result in people getting sick through gastrointestinal illnesses, respiratory illnesses, and skin infections.
Washington’s BEACH Program was launched in 2003 in response to the BEACH Act, which amended the U.S. Clean Water Act in 2000. A collaboration between the Department of Ecology and Department of Health, the program monitors high-use/high-risk beaches throughout the Puget Sound and Washington’s coast.
The number of monitored beaches varies from year to year (Table 1 in Latest data and maps section) with approximately 47 core swimming beaches monitored every year. Core beaches are those that are heavily used by the public and also present a higher risk to human health. A certain number of additional swimming beaches are monitored every year depending on funding, public input, and local health jurisdiction feedback.
For the purposes of this indicator, a beach is considered to meet EPA standards for a particular year if the beach has only one or less instance of a weekly result greater than or equal to 104 colony forming units per /100mL.
The output of the indicator goal may not adequately reflect a long-term outlook for the quality of our beaches, since the number of beaches monitored changes from year to year.
To have all monitored beaches in Puget Sound meet EPA standards for what is called enterococcus, a type of fecal bacteria.
There has been some progress toward the 2020 target compared to the 2004 baseline. Furthermore, results show some improvements compared to the last two years.
In 2012, only 12% of beaches monitored failed to meet water quality standards. This is down from findings in 2010 and 2011, when 26% and 22% of beaches did not meet the standards.
Although the majority of monitored swimming beaches have met EPA standards for enterococci fecal bacteria, the target of 100% has not been met to date. Since 2004, many local bacteria problems have been identified and corrected, but overall there is no clear trend in progress toward the goal.
Only 7 of 60 (88%) beaches failed to pass standards in 2012. (Figure 1).
Some swimming beaches have had multiple violations since 2004. Three of the seven swimming beaches that failed to meet standards in 2012 are considered beaches with chronic bacteria issues, namely:
The remaining four Puget Sound beaches that did not meet standards failed to do so during routine weekly sampling; however, they have met the standard on most occasions.
When the sample size is reduced to just the core beaches and tracked over time, no clear trend emerges, but there are year-to-year fluctuations (Figure 2).
Monitored swimming beaches that did not meet standards in 2011 are mostly scattered throughout Central and North Puget Sound (Figure 1).