BOSTON – As millions of Americans return to the beach this summer, a new report warns that more work is needed to ensure that all waters are safe for swimming. In 2022, 363 beaches were potentially unsafe for swimming on at least one quarter of days tested, according to the latest Safe for Swimming? report by Environment America Research & Policy Center and Frontier Group. The new research comes as states decide how much federal and state funding to spend on reducing sewage overflows and runoff pollution.

“Even as Americans are back to enjoying the fresh sea breeze and splash of waves at the beach, pollution still plagues too many of the places where we swim,” said John Rumpler, Clean Water Director for Environment America Research & Policy Center and a report co-author. “Now is the time to fix our water infrastructure and stop the flow of pathogens to our beaches.”

To assess beach safety, the group examined whether fecal indicator bacteria levels exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) most protective “Beach Action Value,” which is associated with an estimated illness rate of 32 out of every 1,000 swimmers. While more than 350 beaches have persistent pollution problems, pathogens pose risks in other waters as well. More than half of the 3,192 coastal and Great Lakes beaches reviewed exceeded the EPA threshold on at least one day they were tested in 2022, including:  

  • 48 percent of East Coast beaches
  • 63 percent of Great Lakes beaches
  • 84 percent of Gulf Coast beaches
  • 70 percent of West Coast beaches
Roughly one-half of U.S. beaches had potentially unsafe contamination levels in 2022
Roughly one-half of U.S. beaches had potentially unsafe contamination levels in 2022

Polluted runoff from roads and parking lots, overflowing or failing sewer systems, and industrial livestock operations are common sources of contamination that can put swimmers’ health at risk and lead authorities to close beaches or issue health advisories. Scientists estimate 57 million instances of people getting sick each year from swimming in polluted waters in the United States. Those illnesses can include nausea, diarrhea, ear infections and rashes. 

“We have the tools to make the water at our beaches safer for swimming,” said Tony Dutzik, Associate Director and Senior Policy Analyst at Frontier Group and a report co-author. “We hope the maps and data in our report are used to identify places where pollution puts our health at risk and build momentum for solutions.”

The report recommends major investments to stop sewage overflows and runoff pollution. Smart investments in nature-based solutions and repair of aging systems yield cleaner water. The bipartisan infrastructure law not only directly provided $11.7 billion for sewage and stormwater projects but also authorized an additional $14.65 billion for that purpose. Yet the EPA estimates the actual need is $271 billion. Fortunately, states can also allocate American Recovery and Reinvestment Act dollars and create state and local funding programs for the effort.

“More than 50 years ago, our nation resolved that we would make all our waterways safe for swimming,” said Rumpler. “It is time for governors to commit themselves to that goal and build on the progress of the bipartisan infrastructure law to get there.”

Environment America Research & Policy Center and Frontier Group are part of The Public Interest Network, which operates and supports organizations committed to a shared vision of a better world and a strategic approach to social change.