California should embrace new water quality standards for beaches

Millions of people visit the shoreline along San Francisco each year, and some of them may even brave the cold water to swim in the Bay or the Pacific Ocean. But potentially dangerous bacteria could be lurking in the water, including the dreaded E. coli.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued new water quality criteria that would — if adopted and put into place by states — make coastal waters safer for humans. The agency last updated its recreational water quality criteria in 1986.

According to the agency, the new “science-based criteria provide information to help states improve public health protection by addressing a broader range of illness symptoms, better accounting for pollution after heavy rainfall” and “encouraging early alerts to beachgoers and promoting rapid water testing.”

The new guidelines are commonsense on many levels. For instance, the old guidelines only counted sicknesses that were accompanied by a fever. But most people know that you can have a stomach bug or other illness without running a temperature. Too bad it took the EPA nearly 20 years to catch on. Many people who surf or swim in the ocean also know to avoid the water after a heavy rainfall, since pollution upstream is swept into the water. But the prior EPA guidelines averaged bacteria counts over 90 days, too long a period to adequately capture the spikes that can occur immediately after rainfall. So despite everyone’s understanding that periods of heavy rainfall require extra care, testing did not properly address this issue.

The EPA’s changes to its criteria did not come without a fight. A lawsuit led to a U.S. District Court in California ordering a review of the guidelines. The Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act of 2000 also prompted the agency to issue new guidelines.

It is promising that the EPA has issued the new criteria, but problems remain.

First of all, there actually are several recommendations, and the agency is being wishy-washy about simply recommending a single set of best practices. In one case, states are given the option of tightening water-quality standards or sticking with the same set of thresholds for the bacteria enterococci and E. coli that have been in place for the past 26 years.

The second problem is that adoption of the criteria is voluntary. California, often a leader in environmental issues, is likely to adopt the newest, strictest standards. But other states could adopt the lower standards or not adopt them at all. And though bacteria and other contamination disperse in the oceans, continued pollution of the water should not continue. Ocean water does not recognize the geographical boundaries of counties, states or nations.

Every state should adopt the new EPA guidelines, but lawmakers and regulators should also acknowledge that the federal agency’s criteria is at best a starting point, not the end point. The EPA has shown that it takes lawsuits and legislation to set adequate guidelines guaranteeing that the ocean water in which we swim is safe. Yet beachgoers in California will perhaps be less likely to get sick if the new guidelines are put into place — which is a watered-down victory of sorts.

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