Under Court Order, EPA Tightens Water Pollution Standards…Sorta

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On any given day, and especially after rainstorms, you’re likely to find lots of nasties swirling in the water at your local beach, lake, or river, and to limit your risk, states regularly test water based on guidelines issued by the Environmental Protection Agency. This week, after relying on the same criteria for the past 26 years and being ordered by a federal court to update them, the EPA issued its new standards. Good news, right? Not so fast. The new guidelines are ineffectual, confusing, and optional, say critics.

Under the new system, the EPA gives states the option of adopting one of two sets of criteria for measuring levels of E. coli and enterococci, which are bacteria that indicate fecal contamination and cause gastrointestinal illnesses. One choice is to limit bacteria to levels that would sicken 32 out of every 1,000 swimmers or surfers exposed; the other restricts levels to 36 out of every 1,000. The higher of the two bacteria concentration levels is essentially the same as the previous standards.

The EPA only acted after being sued by the National Resources Defense Council, the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, and other groups, and after being order to do so by a federal district court that agreed with the NGOs.

The Surfrider Foundation had eagerly awaited the new guidelines, said Surfrider’s Rick Wilson, and had encouraged members to petition the EPA to make improvements. Now that the criteria have finally been reset, there’s a sense of both relief and disappointment. “We are happy that there are some lower, more protective numbers,” Wilson told Adventure Journal. “But on the other hand, there’s a lot of confusion.”

The problems stem from the fact that the new acceptable contamination levels are only a slight improvement over the old ones, and in certain circumstances they’re actually worse.

But the bigger frustration has to do with enforcement of the criteria — or lack thereof. States are not required to implement any changes to their testing or begin meeting the new standards, and there are no incentives for them to do so. Not only that, but the federal Beach Act had awarded $200,000 to $500,000 per year to states that used the old criteria, but that money dries up at the end of this year.

“We’re sitting here asking ourselves why would a state want to adopt the lower numbers?” Wilson says. “I hope I’m wrong but I don’t see many states jumping to do it when there’s no carrot or stick.”

Even if states do enact the new guidelines, it will take at least a couple of years for the changes go into effect, according to Wilson. “There’s a lot of uncertainty right now,” he says. “No matter what, nothing’s going to change very fast.”

That leaves surfers and swimmers to keep contending with water-borne sicknesses. Surfrider’s site hosts a crowd-sourced illness reporting tool where members can describe their symptoms and tag the spot where they fell sick on a world map. Recent entries come from a surfer hit with gastroenteritis at California’s Topanga Beach; a swimmer who contracted a sinus and ear “super bug” in Cape Cod, Massachusetts; and a surfer who sustained an upper respiratory infection in North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

Environmental coverage made possible in part by support from Patagonia. For information on Patagonia and its environmental efforts, visit www.patagonia.com. Photo by Shutterstock

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