The Maryland Department of the Environment works with local health departments to enhance beach water quality monitoring and maintain the public notification process for beach water quality in Maryland. In October 2000, Congress passed the Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health (BEACH) Act and provided funding to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to improve beach monitoring in coastal states. Maryland’s Beaches Program was established to protect the health of Marylanders at public bathing beaches. The program has evolved further to comply with the requirements of the Federal BEACH Act of 2000. This program is administered by MDE; however, the responsibility of monitoring and public notification of beach information is delegated to the local health departments. To protect the health of citizens visiting beaches across Maryland, MDE’s Beaches Program is working to standardize and improve recreational water quality monitoring in the State. Key objectives outline EPA’s and Maryland’s Beaches Program:
- Provide better public information regarding beach water quality; and
- Promote scientific research to better protect the health of beach users.
The beauty of Maryland's coastline and beach recreation areas attract many local citizens, as well as out-of-state visitors. While swimming in natural waters is never risk free, routine monitoring for indicator bacteria provides a surveillance system to minimize potential health risks that may impact beach water quality. Maryland’s Beaches Program is committed to improving beach water quality and providing valuable, timely information to the public on the water quality at Maryland’s beaches.
What is a Bathing Beach?
The BEACH Act allows states to define and designate marine coastal waters (including estuaries) for use for swimming, bathing, surfing, or similar water contact activities. The State of Maryland defines beaches in the Code of Maryland Regulations (COMAR). In COMAR, beaches means, "natural waters, including points of access, used by the public for swimming, surfing, or other similar water contact activities." Beaches are places where people engage in, or are likely to engage in, activities that could result in the accidental ingestion of water. In Maryland, the beach season is designated from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Beaches provide many additional recreational opportunities for millions of people including swimming, boating, fishing, walking, sightseeing, bird watching, and sunbathing.
Pollution, Water Quality, and Monitoring
Good beach water quality is important for the safety and health of swimmers. Water quality can deteriorate due to pollution caused by runoff after storm events, trash, debris, or even sewage. Sewage sources include bypasses from sewage pumping stations, combined storm water sewers, and sewage spills. Other sources that may cause poor water quality at beaches include failing septic systems, boat waste discharges, and wastes originating from pets, wildlife and farm animals that may runoff into the waters after storm events.
Disease-causing microorganisms associated with untreated sewage and animal waste may potentially pose a health threat to swimmers. These microorganisms are invisible to the naked eye and can be found in the form of bacteria, viruses, protozoa, or worms. Direct exposure to pathogenic organisms might cause illnesses such as gastroenteritis, with symptoms such as fever, diarrhea, and rashes. Because the number of potential pathogens is too vast to monitor individually, indicator organisms are monitored and used to assess recreational water quality. Indicator organisms such as Enterococci and E. coli are two types of bacteria commonly found in the gut of all warm-blooded animals and are used to indicate a recent source of pollution in recreational waters.
Maryland's water quality regulations for beaches are published in COMAR 26.08.09. Some points included are:
- E. coli and Enterococci are the bacteriological indicators for beach monitoring;
- Prioritization of monitoring of beaches based on risk; and
- All beaches, whether permitted or not, now receive protection.
Vibrio are bacteria that occur naturally in estuarine and marine waters worldwide. Vibrio vulnificus (V. vulnificus) is one species of vibrio that can cause infection when swimmers are exposed by open wounds or punctures that occur while swimming, wading or fishing. Not all strains of V. vulnificus cause human illness. The two most significant factors for finding them in surface waters are temperature and salinity (a measure of how much salt is in the water). V. vulnificus is more prevalent in the summer and early fall when water temperatures are warm.
Fact Sheets on Vibrio:
Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health (BEACH) Act of 2000
The BEACH Act, an amendment to the Clean Water Act, was enacted in October 2000 to enhance beach protection provisions. The law authorized federal funds in the form of grants to assist states, tribal, and local governments in developing and implementing monitoring and public notification programs for their coastal recreational waters. The law also required states to adopt improved water quality standards for pathogen indicators for recreational waters. The key components of the BEACH Act are:
- Consistent implementation among states;
- Improved public notification process;
- Better health protection for bathers;
- Funding to states and local governments; and
- Mandate that EPA investigate new pathogens and pathogen indicators for use in assessing risk in coastal waters.
Guidance and Current Activities
MDE, with input from local health departments, prepared a water quality monitoring and notification guidance document to assist county governments with the implementation of the BEACH Act. Additional supporting documents are the "National Beach Guidance and Required Performance Criteria for Grants," published by EPA in 2002, and revised document in 2014.
Once your local health department has identified recreational bathing areas (beaches), the next steps involve defining the physical extent of the beach, identifying potential pollution sources, determining beach usage, establishing monitoring priorities, designing a sampling strategy, and implementing notification procedures. Local health departments monitor water quality through sampling and the Department of Health analyzes the samples for indicator bacteria. Maryland’s beach water quality standards are used to assess the risk associated with bacterial indicator levels. Current bacteria indicator laboratory methods require at least 24 hours before the results are known. Under the BEACH Act, EPA is responsible for developing new and faster methods to detect pathogens and pathogen indicators of fecal contamination.
You can contact MDE’s Beaches program by calling (410) 537-3618.
The promulgation of water quality standards as well as the Beach Monitoring and Public Notification Program are administered by MDE, with responsibility for monitoring and public notification delegated to local health departments. Beach users and the public can obtain information regarding beaches by contacting local health departments. A list of local health departments is provided here.