With summer starting, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation is cautioning swimmers and others to avoid coming into contact with tidal or fresh water for 48 hours after significant rain storms, a precaution also suggested by state and county health departments, but not generally known to the public.
“I’m amazed how few people know our water can be unhealthy for days after a storm. This important information isn’t getting out there, but it needs to,” said Alison Prost, CBF’s Maryland Executive Director. “A summer thunderstorm flushes pollution from our urban and suburban landscapes into nearby creeks, rivers and the Chesapeake Bay. Bacteria from failing septic systems, pet waste, or manure can end up in waters where we swim or recreate.”
State regulations require county health departments to take water samples at public beaches, sometimes as frequently as once a week, and to alert the public when bacteria levels are high. But while Maryland suggests county health officials test beach water after storms, state regulations don’t require those tests. The public is expected to know not to come into contact with water at that time.
So while the state officially counted 439 times last summer when Maryland beaches had high bacteria counts, the number could have been far higher since officials don’t necessarily monitor after storms when bacteria counts are the highest.
This week has been designated as National Recreational Water Illness and Injury Prevention Week. The annual observance highlights the importance of healthy swimming, and recreational water illness prevention.
Water polluted with unhealthy bacteria can increase risk of minor stomach ailments, and in some cases of more serious illnesses such as life-threatening skin and blood infections and intestinal illnesses. Nutrient pollution and warmer weather also stimulate the growth of harmful algal blooms which in some cases can cause liver disease, skin rashes, nausea and vomiting.
Large fish kills in the Patapsco River and elsewhere could be signs that water quality problems that usually impact the region’s water each summer could be arriving earlier this year.
Health officials advise swimmers, boaters and others who come into contact with water to check county health department websites for water advisories in their area, but also generally to avoid the water for two whole days after a storm. Initial water quality monitoring this spring has found generally safe levels of bacteria, but bacteria can spike quickly after storms.
The long-term solution to this problem is to reduce pollution at its source, and to improve stormwater systems so they slow runoff, and treat it before it reaches creeks, rivers and the Bay. Human and animal waste is a major contributor to the Bay’s problems in general, and to beach closings in particular. If we have more effective septic and sewage systems, more sustainable farms, and improve stormwater management, eventually we will be able to swim without worry.
That is the goal of a blueprint for clean water for the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries agreed to by Bay states and the District of Columbia. By July 1, all Maryland counties are required to submit final, detailed plans for how they will contribute to this effort by reducing nutrient and sediment pollution in their local areas. Those plans must address the very sources of pollution that result in beach closings and unhealthy water.
“We hope all counties will see the link between their own efforts to reduce pollution and the welfare of their residents,” Prost said. “We all need clean water. We shouldn’t have to worry that our children will get ill after swimming at a public beach.”
By Chesapeake Bay Foundation