Are Rhode Island Beaches Safe to Swim? - Not Always
Tuesday, July 10, 2018
Swimming in and ingesting contaminated water can cause people to become sick with diarrhea, vomiting, and other gastrointestinal issues, according to regulators.
According to Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH), children are particularly at risk because they are more likely to accidentally swallow more water while swimming, and they are likely to become more severely ill if exposed to harmful bacteria. The Centers for Disease Control also warns that pregnant women and anyone with a compromised immune system, including children, are more at risk of becoming seriously ill from exposure to contaminated water.
With some assistance from the Department of Environmental Management (DEM), RIDOH monitors bacteria levels in public swimming areas and determines which beaches should be temporarily closed for public safety.
How Are Beach Closures Determined?
According to Sherry Poucher, Beach Program Coordinator at the Department of Health, bacteria called Enterococci are measured as a benchmark during water tests. While these bacteria specifically do not cause people to become sick, they act as indicators that other, more harmful bacteria are present. Sixty or more units of the bacteria found in a water sample indicate to officials that the water is likely contaminated and not fit for human contact.
Once the water reaches the 60-count threshold, RIDOH will generally make the decision to close the beach until conditions improve, though the benchmark is not an absolute.
After a beach is closed, it is the responsibility of the management (the DEM for state beaches and individual managers for other beaches) to monitor the water by sending samples to a lab for testing. Bacteria levels generally return to safe levels within one to two days. While the DEM is generally only involved in state beaches, they may be called in to assist with other unusual cases.
Poucher says RIDOH routinely monitors water at licensed beaches through a tiered system. Tier 1 beaches, which have a history of high bacteria counts, high traffic, or other predispositions to closures, are tested weekly. Tier 3 beaches, meanwhile, are tested once per month.
Several factors impact bacteria levels in water, with humans and heavy rainfall topping the list.
When heavy rain falls in areas near water, excess water that is not collected by storm drains rushes through streets and yards, most often ending up in large bodies of water like the Narragansett Bay or ponds. During its journey, stormwater can collect various contaminants such as animal waste, which introduce bacteria into the water.
Humans also have a major impact on bacteria levels in the water. High-traffic areas for swimming and recreation are at a greater risk of contamination from factors such as small children in diapers who enter the water, contaminating it with waste.
The number of beach closures has decreased from a high of about 500 in 2004. In 2017, the number had dropped to just about 100.
Mike Healey, Chief Public Affairs Officer at the DEM, says summer creates the perfect conditions for bacteria to breed in public water. Higher water temperatures make it easier for bacteria to survive, and the influx of human use only adds to the problem.
What is Being Done?
RIDOH partners with organizations like Save the Bay to take measures to improve water conditions.
One major change was creating a tunnel under the Field’s Point sewage treatment facility, which greatly decreased the amount of sewage overflow into the bay during heavy rain.
In addition, Save the Bay works with individual communities to make changes to infrastructure to decrease direct stormwater runoff into the water.
In the past years, the water quality in the Upper Bay has greatly improved, though RIDOH cautions that it’s hard to say for certain that conditions are improving overall. Because water is always changing, officials instead look at long-term trends to draw conclusions about overall water quality improvement.
Even those who do not live in coastal communities can take steps to help prevent high bacteria counts in the local water.
In an effort to decrease runoff, Save the Bay created a list of recommendations for residents, called the Bay-Friendly Living Guide. These recommendations include cleaning up pet waste, avoid littering, creating rain gardens and collecting rainwater in barrels, and not feeding ducks and geese in the area, among others.
In addition, RIDOH cautions any beachgoer from going into the water if they have recently had diarrhea as well as keeping children in diapers out of the water.
If you get sick soon after going to the beach, you are encouraged to contact RIDOH so they can address the issue as soon as possible.
Wenley Ferguson of Save the Bay encourages voters to approve Green Bonds when they vote, which support infrastructure projects that help with stormwater runoff.
A list of closed beaches and recommendations can be found at RIDOH’s website. Beachgoers are encouraged to check that beaches are open for swimming before going.
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