State of the Beach/Beach Indicators/Surf Zone Water Quality

From Beachapedia

Home Beach Indicators Methodology Findings Beach Manifesto State Reports Chapters Perspectives Model Programs Bad and Rad Conclusion

Surf zone water quality affects the health of people who use beaches and the organisms living in the ocean. Swimming safely in the ocean and viewing wildlife like fish, dolphins, and sea lions are important components of the beach experience. Thus, surf zone water quality is a critical measure of the health of our beaches. Scientific research indicates that swimming in water with high bacteria levels can increase the swimmer's risk of experiencing adverse health conditions like fever, nausea, gastroenteritis, nasal congestion, sore throat, and cough.[1] Beyond bacteria, other common pollutants found in the surf zone are heavy metals such as lead and arsenic, organic chemicals such as pesticides and oil, other pathogens such as viruses, and nutrients that can create harmful algal blooms.[2] Polluted water affects both the mating and feeding habits of wildlife.

Water pollution that affects our beaches comes from many sources, some close to the ocean and some very far away. Due to gravity, all water flows downhill through a watershed and picks up pollutants from the land along the way. A watershed, also called a drainage basin, is the area in which all water, sediments, and dissolved materials flow or drain from the land into a common river, lake, ocean, or other body of water.

Types of Water Pollution

This description illustrates the two types of water pollution: non-point source pollution and point source pollution.

  • Point source pollution — refers to pollutants discharged directly into water from discrete points like pipes (e.g. sewage outfalls).

Because of the federal Clean Water Act's years of effective regulation, point source pollution is no longer typically the main source of water pollution. EPA's 1994 Water Quality Inventory identified non-point source pollution as America's largest water quality problem and stated that non-point sources were the leading contributors to water pollution in rivers and estuaries, which both flow into the ocean.[3]

Non-point Source Pollution

Non-point source pollution is pollution from runoff. Local land uses and the land that water flows over determine the pollutants that will be carried into the ocean, so land use ultimately determines the types of pollutants in a watershed. Land use in the coastal zone can be classified under three main types: urban, agriculture, and forestry.

  • Urban Runoff

Urban runoff refers to water flowing from urban areas during both dry weather and periods of rain. As water flows over urban areas it picks up oil leaked from cars, heavy metals from roads, pesticides and fertilizers from lawns and gardens, litter and debris from paved surfaces, and bacteria and nutrients from animal feces. This water can flow either directly into local waterways or, more often, into stormwater systems that usually go directly into the ocean with no treatment.

  • Agricultural Runoff

Agricultural runoff contains pollutants from pesticides and fertilizers used on crops, silt from eroded soil, and bacteria from animal feces.

  • Forestry Runoff

Forestry runoff generally contains high amounts of silt from eroding soils. Each of these sources impacts coastal water in a different manner.

Because non-point source pollution comes from so many diverse sources, confronting this type of water pollution is a complex and difficult issue.[4] In areas with combined sewers - stormwater drains that are physically connected to the sewer system - large volumes of rain water may inundate the system so much that raw sewage is dumped directly into waterways. This condition is termed a Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO).

Point Source Pollution

The two main types of point source pollution that impact coastal water are sewage outfalls and industrial discharges. Sewage outfalls are pipes that discharge treated sewage into inland waterways or into the ocean. Industrial discharges are wastewater from factories and power plants released into waterways, usually through pipes. The Clean Water Act requires both of these sources to obtain permits, which place restrictions on the amounts of pollutants that can flow into waterways.

This report looks at the following areas to determine the status of each state's surf zone water quality: water quality monitoring programs, beach closures, information on the number of and location of storm drains, and information on the location, discharge volume, and treatment level at sewage treatment plants.

Water Quality Monitoring Programs

Monitoring programs are an important component of improving water quality by helping to protect public health and increase public awareness about water quality problems. In addition, because any water quality solutions require knowing where water quality problems exist, these programs are a first step towards improving water quality. The report first looks at whether programs exist, and if they do, what level of government conducts the testing. It also examines the frequency of testing and the standards used.

Beach Closures

This report includes data that tracks each state's number of beach closures over the past several years. The beach closure data is only a rough measure of each state's water quality, because the number of beach closures depends on several factors besides water quality and data are not necessarily comparable between states or even within states. In addition to water quality, the number of beach closures depends on the stringency of the testing program (or if a program exists), the length of the state's coastline, the number of accessible beaches, and other factors such as the amount of annual rainfall. States with a high number of beach closures do not necessarily have poorer water quality than states with fewer beach closures. Furthermore, the standards used to close beaches and the pollution-testing methods used vary by state and within states, so no consistent standard exists to compare water quality using the number of beach closures in different areas.

While the beach closure data is only an indirect indicator of water quality, patterns in the data can reveal chronic pollution problem areas.

Storm Drain Information

Information about the location and status of storm drains is important in improving surf zone water quality because storm drains are the main sources of urban runoff flowing into the ocean. Urban runoff flows into storm drains and either directly into the ocean or into nearby waterways that eventually flow into the ocean. Most importantly, this runoff rarely receives treatment and contains pollutants that have been picked up by the water as it runs through urban areas. Surfrider looked at available information on the location of storm drains at the state level. With this information, water quality agencies can target sources of urban runoff and efficiently improve surf zone water quality. A considerable amount of storm drain information resides at the local level, so the research for this report may not have found information when it actually does exist. The report indicates when Surfrider found that information is available at the local level.

Sewage Outfall Information

Due to strict permitting for point sources of pollution, the relative proportion of pollutants from sewage outfalls that affect surf zone water quality has decreased over the past two decades. Nevertheless, the location of outfalls and the pollutants emanating from them is important information that the public should know. This report looks at the public availability of this information.


  1. Haille, R. et. al., An Epidemiological Study of Possible Adverse Health Effects of Swimming in Santa Monica Bay. Santa Monica Bay Restoration Project. 1996.
  2. Lehner, Peter H. et al., Storm Water Strategies: Community Responses to Runoff Pollution. Natural Resources Defense Council, May 1999.
  3. EPA Office of Water. Nonpoint Source Fact Sheet: Number One. EPA841-F-96-004A. 1996. Website visited on August 14, 1999.
  4. Smolen, Michael D. et. al. Nonpoint Source Impact Assessment: An Assessment Report. Water Pollution Control Foundation. Alexandria, VA. 1991. p. 1-5.

State Beach Water Quality Reports

To view the Water Quality indicator page for a specific state, select the state from the list below: