• Luke Ginger, Waterkeeper Swim Guide
    September 4, 2019

I wish I could tell you. A surprising answer considering that I am a water quality scientist.

I should be clear; I do know what’s in some of the water some of the time. My job is to provide easy-to-understand recreational water quality information to the public so they can make decisions about where and when to get in the water. Through Heal the Bay, I issue the Beach Report Card for ocean beaches along the U.S. West Coast and the River Report Card for rivers, streams, and reservoirs throughout Los Angeles County.

Grades on the report cards are based on the amount of fecal indicator bacteria (FIB) measured in the water — the more FIB, the greater the risk of illness by coming into contact with the water. Millions of people every year contract waterborne illness leading to billions of dollars in health care costs. No one should get sick and go into medical debt because they tried to go for a swim.

Photo credit: Luke Ginger

The state of The BEACH Act today

Monitoring recreational water quality requires money and resources. Luckily, the U.S. Congress passed the BEACH Act in 2000, which allocated money to coastal and Great Lakes states to set up recreational water quality monitoring programs. The BEACH Act funding does ensure that many beaches get monitored, however, the amount of money allocated under the act has remained stagnant since its implementation nearly 20 years ago.

Since the amount of money for monitoring has not kept up with the rate of inflation, many monitoring agencies around the US have been forced to cut back on the amount of monitoring they perform. Fewer samples being taken leaves the public unaware of and exposed to possibly harmful water quality. A few states, like California, supplement BEACH Act funds with state funds, but the vast majority of states do not.

But, not all swimming spots are in the ocean or Great Lakes; suppose you are swimming in a river, lake, or freshwater swimming hole. In that case, the situation is even more dire. There is currently no federal or state funding for freshwater recreational water quality monitoring in the United States. There are millions of people swimming in bodies of water where a water quality sample has never been taken.

Photo credit: Luke Ginger

Moving Recreational Water Quality Monitoring Inland

There are many counties and municipalities across the U.S. that foot the bill to monitor some freshwater recreation sites. There are also nonprofits and community science groups like Heal the Bay and the Blue Water Taskforce who try to fill in the monitoring gaps left behind by government agencies. But, there are many more unmonitored sites out there. In fact, no one even knows how many unmonitored sites there are because no state or federal agency has ever taken an inventory.

I, and experts like me, recommend that U.S. lawmakers increase the amount of funds in the BEACH Act and to expand The Act to cover all inland freshwater recreation sites.

This is a major public health issue that must be addressed on a federal level. I, and experts like me, recommend that U.S. lawmakers increase the amount of funds in the BEACH Act and to expand The Act to cover all inland freshwater recreation sites. The federal government already has water quality standards that recreational sites must meet. It only makes sense that funds be made available for monitoring to see whether those standards are being met and if people are being protected.

The Bigger Picture

Recreational water quality monitoring goes beyond the issue of recreation. People experiencing homelessness are effectively denied the basic human right of access to clean water, so they turn to natural sources of water such as rivers, streams, and lakes. This means homeless communities are disproportionately affected by poor water quality – the extent of which is not known because there is not enough water quality data.

When you consider the origin of fecal indicator bacteria (failing sewage infrastructure and bacteria-laden urban runoff), it’s easy to see this is a climate change issue as well. As storms, hurricanes, and flooding events become more extreme across the United States, there is a real possibility that bacteria pollution where people swim will become more prevalent. The time to act is now. Let’s figure out what’s in our water.

Photo credit: Luke Ginger

Heal the Bay’s Luke Ginger fights for the environment’s rights by advocating for water quality regulation and enforcement. But he’s also looking out for the humans who go to the beaches, rivers, and streams by managing the Beach Report Card, River Report Card, and NowCast programs.

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