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Why Beaches?

Beaches represent everything we value: health, family, culture, and nature.

Whether sandy oceanfront spaces or rocky river edges, people love beaches. They need and crave places where they can access water, connect with friends and family, and immerse themselves in nature.

Survey after survey reveals that beaches are the single most popular type of natural space in North American culture. Our fondest outdoor experiences involve water, swimming and going to the beach. The average person spends 10 days per year near the water. In the USA alone, people take a total of 2-billion trips to the beach each year.

Beaches aren’t just for people. They are also incredibly important parts of their ecosystems. They provide critical links between aquatic (water) and terrestrial (land) life, offering habitat and food to crustaceans, mud-dwelling lifeforms, fish, birds, and other wildlife. Nearshore habitat offers the greatest biological productivity, meaning that those special places near the shore should be teeming with life.

The problem

Beaches are important contributors to healthy communities and healthy ecosystems. Yet, wherever water quality monitoring programs exist, water quality problems are found.

The most common cause of water quality problems is bacteria pollution, which is caused by outdated or inappropriate sewage, stormwater, and land-use systems. High levels of E. coli or enterococcus may be found if there is a nearby sewage treatment plant, combined sewage outfalls (which dump untreated waste into water before it reaches the treatment plant), stormwater outfalls, or faulty septic systems. Large populations of waterfowl living in unnatural conditions and agricultural runoff can also lead to increased levels of bacteria in beachwater.

When beaches fail to meet water quality standards, it is a sign that other serious problems are occurring.

People who swim get sick: While many beach-related illnesses are never reported, studies suggest that hundreds of thousands of North Americans will get sick or face physical discomfort after swimming at polluted beaches each year. Swimming—or even splashing—in contaminated waters can cause harmful pathogens to enter the body through cuts or openings such as mouth, nose, and ears. The most common effects are minor eye, ear, nose, or throat infections, stomach disorders, and skin rashes. More serious diseases and illnesses may also be contracted in heavily polluted waters, including typhoid fever, hepatitis, gastroenteritis, and dysentery. Some types of blue-green algae have the potential to produce toxins or skin irritants. Exposure can cause headaches, fever, diarrhea, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, skin rashes, and mucous membrane irritation. Children — the very people who love beaches above all others — are more susceptible to illnesses caused by harmful bacteria and pathogens in beachwater.

People usually expose themselves to contaminated water for one of two reasons: they may not have reliable water quality information, or they may not understand the information that has been provided to them. Government monitoring authorities often withhold water quality data for up to one year, bury it on websites that are difficult for people to find, or present incomplete or confusing data that people have a hard time understanding. One Waterkeeper survey in 2012 found people swimming at closed, polluted beaches 100% of the time.

Swim Guide counters the information problem by sharing water quality information with you. It offers easy-to-use maps so you can quickly identify which beaches passed water quality tests (green) and which ones failed water quality tests (red). By making it easy to see where water quality is appropriate for swimming, you can choose the safest places to bring their families to the beach and reduce your risk of contracting a waterborne illness.

People get used to dirty beaches and then turn their back on the water: When beaches are polluted, people stay away. Over time, they become entirely disconnected from their waterways.

Conversely, when people are confident that their beaches are clean and inviting, they come out in droves, helping to stimulate interest in their watersheds and support for other restoration and protection initiatives.

Nature suffers: Most people do not realize that the water quality standards for protecting human health at beaches are the same water quality standards for protecting natural life. The impacts of poor water quality on the aquatic environment include gender-bending effects on frogs and fish and the extermination of species at the bottom of the food chain. When a beach is posted as unsafe for swimming, humans can find somewhere else to spend a hot summer’s day. The plants and animals that rely on the beach for survival cannot.

Swim Guide counters the environmental impacts associated with polluted beaches by providing meaningful incentives to prevent pollution and generating support for restoring contaminated areas. By shedding light on beaches with chronic water quality problems, we can target the areas in most need of restoration and protection.


Where does your beach water quality data come from?
Swim Guide pulls together beach posting information from the people who sample beach water (local and state health authorities). We check hotlines and websites on a daily basis to find out which beaches are open and which are posted. If there is a difference between Swim Guide’s beach status and what you see when you are actually at a beach, you should always defer to the local monitoring agency.

How often is Swim Guide information updated?
Swim Guide is updated as soon as water quality is made available. Where water quality changes every day, we try to update the information before noon so you can make your plans for the day.

What does it mean when a beach is “posted”?
A beach is posted when it fails to meet certain water quality criteria. Beach “postings” are also known as beach “advisories”. The criteria include problems like E. coli levels, cloudiness of the water, recent heavy rainfall, and algae blooms. The criteria differ from province to province and state to state and are more protective in some places than in others. We use the same water quality criteria as the local authority. If we are concerned about water quality, we always err on the side of caution.

Is “posting” a beach different from “closing” a beach?
Yes. A “posted” beach is one where local monitoring authorities believe there is a health risk to swimmers, usually because bacteria levels are too high. A beach may be posted one day and open another, because bacteria levels change quickly. Beach “postings” are also known as beach “advisories”.

Beach closures are more serious and, in many cases, permanent. You should never touch the water at a closed beach.

What causes beach postings and closures?
E. coli is the most commonly used indicator of water quality health at a freshwater beach. Fecal coliform and Enterococcus are usually the indicators used at saltwater beaches. These bacteria are found in the waste (feces) of most warm-blooded animals, including humans.

High levels of bacteria may be found at a beach if there is a nearby sewage treatment plant, combined sewage outfalls (which dump untreated waste into water before it reaches the treatment plant), stormwater outfalls, agricultural runoff, faulty septic systems, or large populations of waterfowl.

Beaches may also be posted for other reasons: turbidity may be high so you can’t see through the water, algae blooms may make the water unsafe, there may have been a spill, for example.

What are the risks of swimming at a dirty beach?
When bacteria is found at the beach, it is a sign that the water is contaminated with human/animal waste and may contain pathogens (disease-causing organisms), as well as viruses and parasites.

If you swim or splash in contaminated waters, pathogens may enter your body through cuts or openings such as your mouth, nose and ears. The most common effects are minor eye, ear, nose, or throat infections or stomach disorders. You may also develop a rash. More serious diseases and illnesses may also be contracted in heavily polluted waters, including typhoid fever, hepatitis, gastroenteritis, and dysentery.

If there is a difference between the beach status you see in Swim Guide and what is posted at your beach, always make your decisions based on signs posted by the local monitoring authority.