Beach Closures Offer Key to Bigger Water Pollution Stories

July 28, 2021
Beach closures like this one in Los Angeles in July can be an entry point to broader water pollution stories that are often underreported. Photo: Los Angeles County Fire Department, Lifeguard Division. Click to enlarge.

TipSheet: Beach Closures Offer Key to Bigger Water Pollution Stories

By Joseph A. Davis

Summer sends people, slathered with tanning lotion, in crowds to the beach. Yet in July, beaches around Los Angeles made news when they closed after 17 million gallons of sewage spilled into Santa Monica Bay.

Such beach closures offer environmental journalists a gateway to bigger water pollution stories.

That’s because water pollution can make people sick. It is scarier than shark attacks — think cholera, typhoid, dysentery and flesh-eating bacteria. It also happens more often.

And this is not a story limited to coastal communities. Water pollution happens everywhere and people will find places to swim (lakes, reservoirs, rivers and streams) even when landlocked.

But it still gets less media attention than other stories. So the summer is a good time for reporters to review some ways to cover beach closures and water pollution.


Why it matters

The above-mentioned diseases are just a few of the many bad ones people can get at the beach.

In many cases, skin contact with polluted water may be enough. But few swimmers who immerse themselves in water avoid ingestion in some amount. Even inhalation of salty spray can be a hazard.

Let’s add to the list cryptosporidium, a parasitical disease that killed 69 and sickened 403,000 in Milwaukee in 1993. Or schistosomiasis, another parasitical disease. Or leptospirosis, a waterborne animal-vector disease. Or the many other gastrointestinal diseases caused by other organisms like amoebae.

The lurid list goes on.


The backstory

The most common waterborne diseases are transmitted via a fecal-oral pathway — which means that swimming in water that contains untreated sewage is unwise.

This does not happen too often in the United States when things are working as they are supposed to. But when partially treated sewage is discharged from a municipal wastewater system, beach warnings and closures are likely to follow. Note that the receiving body may be a bay, an ocean, a lake or a river.

This often happens during wet-weather events that produce lots of stormwater. But sewage plants get upset by all kinds of things.


The red-flag test for sewage

pollution is fecal coliform bacteria,

an “indicator” of sewage pollution.


The red-flag test for sewage pollution is fecal coliform bacteria. This family of bacteria serves as an “indicator” of sewage pollution because they are typically found in the intestines of humans and animals.

Many fecal coliform bacteria are harmless, but not all. And if found, they signal the possible presence of other, more pathogenic microbes. The three main tests are “total coliform,” “fecal coliforms” and “E. coli.”

Sewage treatment plants and sanitary sewers (and properly maintained septic tanks) are theoretically supposed to catch and neutralize what people flush down the toilet. Sadly, this does not always happen.

One of the worst culprits, even where there are sewers, are “wet weather flows,” typically rainstorms or snowmelt. Extra water going into the system, or a glitch at the treatment plant, can cause sanitary sewer overflows.

When storm and sanitary sewer systems are linked even partially — as many are — high volumes of stormwater will flush human and animal waste into receiving waters via combined sewer overflows.


Red tides and more

It is worth remembering that, while sewage pollution may be the most common hazard for summer swimmers, it is hardly the only one.

Some other bacterial threats may come from natural sources, such as vibrio, a family that proliferates in warm summer waters. Vibrio, a relative of cholera, is most often acquired from infected seafood, but can also be spread via water contact with an open wound.

Nowadays, biohazards like “red tide” are also something for swimmers to worry about. Red tide is really just one example of a larger class called harmful algal blooms.

Human pollution worsens these in several ways. The worst, typically, is nitrogen pollution from agriculture (although warming of waters from climate change is now a factor, too). These happen in both salt and freshwater.

These algae can generate excess amounts of toxins like microcystin, which can harm humans. Transmission of toxins, even through the air, can harm human health in many ways.

It also harms aquatic and marine life and land animals. The stink of piles of rotting fish killed by harmful algal blooms can definitely ruin your beach experience.

There are many other ways swimming in bad water can make you sick — but we will not bore you (for the moment) with a further list of skin diseases and ear infections. Or the many non-pathogen toxic chemicals that are sometimes discharged into swimming waters.


Story ideas and reporting resources

Your first task in covering this topic is to find the beach closure or the pollution that triggers it.

The news is likely to be found at a local level first. Much depends on where you are, what water bodies people swim in, what agency has jurisdiction over that water body, whose job it is to do the testing or whose job it is to keep sewage out of the water. Don’t forget to ask whose job it is to keep an eye on all of that (spoiler — it could be you.)

At the local level, you could find a local beach closure simply by going to the beach and looking for posted signs or flags. You could call the lifeguard station or the agency that runs the beach.

Other likely sources include county health departments. Many of the more responsible sewage treatment agencies will promptly notify the public of a spill, upset or overflow — but not all. Call them anyway.


Notification is a huge issue. Los Angeles

caught major flak in its July incident after

it took more than 12 hours to warn the public.


Actually, notification is a huge issue. Los Angeles caught major flak in its July incident after it took more than 12 hours to warn the public.

Under the federal Clean Water Act, or CWA, discharges of untreated or partially treated sewage are illegal. But we are sad to report that there are some 40,000 discharges yearly across the country … and they are hardly all quickly reported.

Technically, under the CWA, the public is supposed to be notified of discharges. But the act is enforced under a complicated partnership between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state and local agencies — and that hinges on permitting under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, or NPDES.

There is a lot of slack in the NPDES system about public notification and enforcement of it. In past years, there have been federal efforts to remedy this by both regulation and legislation.

These have not yet succeeded. Some states, for example Connecticut, have enacted their own sewage discharge right-to-know laws.

  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a nice online directory to link you to state agencies with info about pollution hazards.
  • The EPA has tried to maintain directories on beach advisories, but these ultimately rely on state and local agencies more directly in charge. EPA also offers a lot of general info on beach health. See also EPA’s efforts to coach people trying to find out more about the environmental healthfulness of their beaches. In the end, the most EPA can do is often just help you to find out whether sewage discharges are even monitored in your area.

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, as well as compiling SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 6, No. 28. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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