State of the Beach/State Reports/GA/Water Quality

From Beachapedia

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

Georgia Ratings
Indicator Type Information Status
Beach Access67
Water Quality66
Beach Erosion4-
Erosion Response-4
Beach Fill4-
Shoreline Structures4 6
Beach Ecology3-
Surfing Areas35
Coastal Development{{{19}}}{{{20}}}
Sea Level Rise{{{21}}}{{{22}}}

Water Quality Monitoring Program

The Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act (BEACH Act) signed into law on October 10, 2000, amends the federal Clean Water Act (CWA), incorporating provisions intended to reduce the risk of illness to users of the Nation's recreational waters. The BEACH Act authorizes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to award program development and implementation grants to eligible States, Territories, Tribes, and local governments to support microbiological testing and monitoring of coastal recreation waters, including the Great Lakes, that are adjacent to beaches or similar points of access used by the public. BEACH Act grants also provide support for development and implementation of programs to notify the public of the potential exposure to disease-causing microorganisms in coastal recreation waters. EPA encourages coastal States and Territories to apply for BEACH Act Grants for Program Implementation (referred to as Implementation Grants) to implement effective and comprehensive coastal recreation water monitoring and public notification programs. CWA section 406(i) authorizes appropriations of up to $30 million per year to develop and implement beach programs. Unfortunately, only about one-third that amount has been authorized each year since the program's inception. In recent years, the total funding available for BEACH Act grants has been about $9.5 million. Funding beyond 2012 has been in jeopardy, since EPA's budget requests for this program in FY2013 and FY2014 were ZERO (money for testing in 2013 and 2014 was ultimately allocated as part of Continuing Resolutions to resolve the Federal Budget impasse) and there was also no money for beach testing in the FY2015 budget. Again, it was restored at the last minute as part of a Continuing Resolution. It is very discouraging to have to fight for this basic funding to protect the public's health at the beach every year. Thankfully, there is a growing movement to provide stable funding. Unfortunately, in 2017 the situation is even more dire. If available, funds are allocated to the states and territories based on a formula which uses three factors that are readily available and verifiable: (1) Length of beach season, (2) miles of beach and (3) number of people that use the beaches. Georgia was eligible for a $272,000 grant in fiscal year 2016. The BEACH Act grant fully funds Georgia’s monitoring and notification program.

Georgia’s Beach Monitoring Program is a cooperative effort of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Coastal Resources Division and the Georgia Department of Human Resources, Division of Public Health.

The Georgia Beach Water Quality Program (PDF) was the subject of a February 25, 2010 presentation by Elizabeth Cheney.

Much of the following discussion is taken from NRDC’s report Testing the Waters, A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches, June 2014. NRDC's report evaluates beach monitoring data relative to EPA's recommended Beach Action Value (BAV). The BAV is a more protective threshold than the national allowable bacteria levels used in previous years to trigger beach advisories. The EPA considers the BAV to be a "conservative, precautionary tool for making beach notification decisions."

NRDC ranked Georgia 10th in Beachwater Quality (out of 30 states). 8% of samples exceeded EPA's new BAV standards for designated beach areas in 2013.

Georgia has 41 public beaches along 118 miles of Atlantic coast and barrier island shores. The Coastal Resources Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources administers Georgia's beach monitoring and notification program. Most monitored Georgia beaches are tested year-round. Beach closing and advisory information is available on the Coastal Resources Division website.


The state has concluded that its beachwater quality does not appear to correlate strongly with any measured environmental parameters, including rainfall. Thus, Georgia has no preemptive rainfall advisory standards and does not make use of predictive models for issuing beach advisories. However, permanent advisories are issued for beaches that have ongoing water quality issues. For example, Kings Ferry has been under permanent advisory since 2006. The health department can issue a closing in the case of an immediate threat to public health, such as a sewage spill. Further, a volunteer network monitors phytoplankton in Georgia's estuaries, providing information necessary in the event of a harmful algal bloom.

Prior to full implementation of enterococcus monitoring on Georgia's beaches, a six month pilot study was conducted from May through October, 2003. The report, Georgia Estuarine and Littoral Sampling Study to Investigate the Relationship Among Three Analytical Methods Used to Determine the Numbers of Enterococci in Coastal Waters was prepared by Jenny McDonald, Jason Nelson, Carolyn Belcher, Keith Gates, and Katy Austin with the University of Georgia Marine Extension Service DNR in December 2003.

In January 2004, elevated levels of fecal coliform were detected at the St. Andrew Picnic Area beach on the south end of Jekyll. The Glynn County Health Department issued a swimmers advisory. The DNR Environmental Protection Division (EPD) investigated. After several weeks, the fecal coliform levels dropped and the Health Department lifted the swimmers advisory. EPD prepared a Final Report on the Investigation into the Beach Monitoring Fecal Coliform Exceedance at St. Andrew Picnic Area on Jekyll Island, GA.(pdf 1.49MB).

A further investigation was done by Dr. Peter Hartel of the University of Georgia. The report, Targeted Sampling of St. Andrews Park on Jekyll Island to Determine Sources of Fecal Contamination (pdf 4.94 MB), was delivered to DNR in June 2004.

The report concluded:

“The results suggest that the fecal contamination came from the sediment. There are several potential fecal sources to the sediment, but their contribution would likely occur only during runoff conditions; such conditions were not tested here. The State will need to consider its priorities with regards to sediments, because given the current regulations, it is highly likely that St. Andrews Park will continue to have beach advisories.”

The CRD website has links to several additional beach water quality research project reports, articles and presentations.

National Ocean Service/National Center for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS) has carried out many water quality research projects in Georgia.

Water Quality Contact

DNR Beach Water Quality Program
Elizabeth Cheney
(912) 264-7218

For health-related questions, contact the Glynn County Health Department at (912) 264-9319 or the Chatham County Health Department at (912) 356-2160

Beach Closures

NRDC reported:

In 2013, Georgia reported 41 coastal beaches, 27 of which were monitored. Of all reported beach monitoring samples, 8% exceeded the Beach Action Value (BAV) of 60 enterococcus bacteria colony forming units (cfu) per 100 ml marine or estuarine water in a single sample. NRDC considers all reported samples individually (without averaging) when calculating the percent exceedance rates in this analysis. This includes duplicate samples and reported samples taken outside the official beach season, if any.

The beaches with the highest percent exceedance rates of the BAV in 2013 were St. Andrews Picnic Area (Jekyll) in Glynn County (31%), St. Simons Island Lighthouse in Glynn County (16%), Jekyll Clam Creek in Glynn County (15%), Tybee Island Polk Street in Chatham County (15%), 5th Street Crossover (SSI) in Glynn County (9%), and 12th St. Gould's Inlet (SSI) in Glynn County (9%).

For a bar chart showing a 5-year water quality trend, see NRDC's report.

DNR Beach Water Quality Monitoring, Notification, and Research website.

In June 2013, U.S. EPA released its latest data about beach closings and advisories for the 2012 swimming season. Note that for some states the data is incomplete, making state-to-state or year-to-year comparisons difficult. Here's EPA's BEACH Report for Georgia's 2012 Swimming Season. EPA no longer publishes this report.

The United States Geological Survey maintains a Website, USGS Water Resources of Georgia. This site is a valuable source of information including current projects, online reports, publications, and maps, real-time water conditions and educational outreach material for teachers and students.

Georgia Sea Grant is another source of information on water quality in Georgia.

Storm Drains and Sewage Outfalls

Information on the location or number of storm drains and sewage outfalls in Georgia was not readily available.

Funded by a $100,000 dollar grant from the US Environmental Protection Agency, health officials are creating a map of septic tanks in three coastal-area counties. Coastal-area counties from Effingham to Camden already have been mapped. Brantley, Wayne and Charlton Counties were expected to complete the project by summer 2013. The work is part of a year-long, 11-county effort to clean up coastal rivers and wetlands. The map could lead to more money in the future to help fix failing septic tanks.

The Coastal Nonpoint Source Program is a part of the Georgia Coastal Management Program that addresses water quality. It was mandated to all coastal states by Section 6217 of the Coastal Zone Act Reauthorization Amendment, and is administered at the federal level by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Thus, it is also referred to as the 6217 Program. It is a non-regulatory program that seeks to reduce nonpoint source pollution by providing funding, program development, and technical assistance for a range of activities that implement nonpoint source management measures, such as modifying existing construction design standards, local ordinances, public works and contractor training programs, and existing water quality protection programs. These management measures were mandated by the US EPA guidance document 840-B-92-002 (1993) and are non-numeric directives that seek to reduce nonpoint source pollution from sources that are exempt from regulation under federal or state environmental laws. That is, the 6217 management measures address pollution sources that were originally thought to be too insignificant to address by regulations. There are 56 of these measures.

Some examples of 6217 management measures that address urban and suburban activities are:

  • Establish watershed protection programs that protect natural drainage systems and that preserve areas that provide important water quality benefits and or are necessary to maintain riparian and aquatic biota
  • Limit the increase of impermeable surfaces wherever practicable
  • Develop a watershed protection program that establishes/preserve streamside buffer zones
  • Include runoff management systems in the design of roads and bridges, that reduce both volume and pollutants Some examples for marina operations include:
  • Ensure that sewage pumpout facilities are maintained in operational condition and encourage their use
  • Provide and maintain adequate and appropriate storage and safe disposal of hazardous liquid material, solid waste (that are generated by customers) and encourage recycling of same

The Coastal Nonpoint Source Programs goal is to facilitate the development of any program that addresses the 6217 pollution management measures. Examples of qualifying programs include incentives programs to reduce pesticide use, educational programs aimed at the public and commercial sectors, flood control programs and initiatives, and stormwater Best Management Practice demonstration programs.

The Georgia Erosion and Sedimentation Act O.C.G.A. 12-7-1 requires that each county or municipality adopt a comprehensive ordinance establishing procedures governing land-disturbing activities based on the minimum requirements established by the Act. The Erosion and Sedimentation Act is administered by the Environmental Protection Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, and by local governments. Permits are required for specified "land-disturbing activities," including the construction or modification of manufacturing facilities, construction activities, certain activities associated with transportation facilities, activities on marsh hammocks, etc. With certain constraints, permitting authority can be delegated to local governments.

One provision of the Erosion and Sedimentation Act requires that land-disturbing activities shall not be conducted within 25 feet of the banks of any State waters unless a variance is granted (O.C.G.A. 12-7-6-(15)). Construction of single family residences under contract with the owner are exempt from the permit requirement but are still required to meet the standards of the Act (O.C.G.A. 12-7-17-(4)). Large development projects, both residential and commercial, must obtain a permit and meet the requirements of the Act. According to the Georgia Coastal Management Act, any permits or variances issued under the Erosion and Sedimentation Act must be consistent with the Georgia Coastal Management Program. Permits within the jurisdiction of the Coastal Marshlands Protection Act and the Shore Protection Act can include requirements that certain minimum water quality standards be met as a condition of the permit.

In February 2007 the Board of Natural Resources adopted amendments to the Coastal Marshlands Protection Rules to impose marshlands buffer, stormwater management, and impervious cover standards to protect this vital area of the State from non-point source pollution. The rule took effect in late March 2007 and established regulations that apply to the upland component of a project requiring a Coastal Marshlands Protection Act permit. The rules apply primarily to commercial, community and public projects such as marinas, community docks, fishing piers, boat ramps, and bridges that require a Coastal Marshlands Protection Act permit. The rules do not apply to private residential docks not requiring a Coastal Marshlands Protection Act permit, or marshfront property that does not have a project requiring a Coastal Marshlands Protection Act permit. The rule establishes a 50-foot marshlands buffer applicable to the upland component of the project, defines how to measure that buffer, and requires that the buffer remain in an undisturbed, naturally vegetated condition. Exceptions are provided for temporary construction and maintenance, permanent structures essential for the function or permanent access to the marsh component of the project, landscaping to enhance stormwater management, and pedestrian access for passive recreation.

In November 2008 the city of Atlanta celebrated the completion of a $190 million West Area Combined Sewer Overflow Tunnel that can store up to 177 million gallons of rain and sewage. The project is part of the city's $4 billion overhaul of its water and sewer systems. The city estimates the tunnel should reduce the number of spills from the combined sewer system from about 300 per year down to 16. Atlanta's ambitious project to upgrade their sewer infrastructure is featured in the video Liquid Assets.

Perception of Causes

Section 305(b) of the Clean Water Act requires States to assess and describe the quality of its waters every two years in a report called the 305(b) report. Section 303(d) of the Clean Water Act requires States to submit a list of all of the waters that are not meeting their designated uses and that need to have a TMDL(s) written for them. The 303(d) list is also to be submitted every two years. Georgia submits a combined 305(b)/303(d) report. This combined report is called an Integrated Report and has typically been entitled the “Water Quality in Georgia” report. One section of the Integrated Report is the 305(b)/303(d) list of waters. This is a list of all of the waters that the State has assessed.

Georgia 305(b)/303(d) List Documents are the periodic reports and data compiled and submitted to address the requirements of the Clean Water Act.

Research by Peter Verity and others at Skidway Institute of Oceanography over the last 19 years has detected a steady increase in the concentration of nutrients (fertilizer and sewage waste) which promote the excessive growth of algae in Georgia's rivers and estuaries. This, in turn, causes a decrease in dissolved oxygen that is essential for marine life. Over the last decade, total catches of commercially important fish have declined by more than 50% and blue crabs have declined by 90%. Verity states that "Parts of Coastal Georgia are heading in the direction of Chesapeake Bay and Boston Harbor. It may take a few more years to get there, but if it does, history shows that it will take many generations to get it back."

University of Georgia researcher Peter Hartel is investigating the bacteria at beaches from Jekyll to Tybee, using a $170,000 grant from EPA. Among his methods are DNA testing, which attempts to pinpoint the species connected to various bacteria. He'll also track down sewage by looking for ingredients of laundry detergent called optical brighteners.

The Eastern Surfing Association Georgia District (ESA-GA) was notified in June 2012 that it had received a $5000 grant from the Savannah Presbytery M.K. Pentecost Ecology Fund for a one-year study "Coastal Water Quality Improvements Through Oyster Reef Restoration." This study will take place on Tybee Island. Along with the ESA-GA, research partners and financial supporters for the project will be Coastal Environmental Analysis, and Georgia Power who will collectively provide an additional $12,000 worth of field and lab work, chemical and microbial analysis, and data processing and analysis. The City of Tybee Island has also been a partner and supporter of this project since its inception. The overall goal of this project is to evaluate the effectiveness of placing bags of oyster shells along the banks of a salt marsh tidal creek (Horsepen Creek) in order to increase natural biological filtration of bacteria from creek water. New oysters, barnacles and other filter feeding animals will settle and grow on the oyster shells. It is anticipated that by increasing the number of filter feeding barnacles and oysters in the tidal creek, the concentrations of bacteria in the creek water will be decreased. As a result, non-point source pollution of creek and adjacent coastal waters due to bacteria will be reduced by this natural biological filtration process, leading to healthier, safer beach water in the vicinity.

Under a new rule proposed by the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, if a community finds it too difficult or too expensive to meet water quality standards, they may not have to. The proposal would make it possible to grant a variance if "allowing lower water quality is necessary to accommodate important economic or social development in the area in which the waters are located." The Georgia Board of Natural Resources was scheduled to consider adopting the rule on October 24, 2007.

No harmful algal blooms have occurred along the Georgia coast for several decades. However, the Coastal Health District has obtained a Coastal Incentive Grant through the NOAA to develop a harmful algal bloom response plan.

The Phytoplankton Monitoring Network (PMN) is a National Ocean Service/National Center for Coastal Ocean Science program operating in ten coastal states with the ultimate goal of linking laboratory scientists to the general public. PMN's seven goals are:

  • To create a comprehensive list of harmful algal species inhabiting coastal marine waters
  • To monitor and maintain an extended survey area along coastal waters throughout the year
  • To isolate areas prone to harmful algal blooms (HABs) for further study by Marine Biotoxins researchers
  • To identify general trends, such as time and area, where HABs are more likely to occur
  • To promote increased awareness and education to the public, particularly students, on HABs
  • To increase the public's awareness of research conducted by federal and state workers on HABs
  • To create a working relationship with open communication between volunteers and researchers through PMN

Public Education

Information is available on the Website of the Watershed Protection Branch of the Environmental Protection Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. The EPD Outreach section has water conservation, Adopt-A-Stream, and Project WET information for students/teachers and citizens.

Answers to Frequently Asked Questions regarding beach monitoring and water quality are available at:

Here is Georgia DNR's Beach Water Quality Monitoring, Notification, and Research website.

In late 2007, the University of Georgia produced a brochure that informs the public about sources of bacterial contamination and how pet waste, wildlife waste, boat discharges, and septic tank failure can contribute to water quality problems at the beach. This brochure is distributed at coastal festivals and other outreach events. Here's a guide for having dogs at the beach.

COSEE SE has produced a series of Education Resources.

The Georgia Aquarium opened in late 2005. This 500,000-square-foot facility claims to be the largest aquarium in the world. It holds 8 million gallons of water and is home to more than 100,000 fish. The Georgia Aquarium’s school group programs began in early 2006.

The aquarium hosted a 2-day workshop focused on the Urban Watershed in December 2005. This new Project WET (Water Education for Teachers) Supplement was created in partnership with the City of Atlanta Watershed Management and Georgia Project WET.

General Reference Documents and Websites

EPA has compiled several NPS (Nonpoint Source) Outreach Products that are a selection of television, radio, and print products on nonpoint source pollution that have been developed by various agencies and organizations around the country. They are good examples of outreach in the mass media. Also see What You Can Do.

NOAA, in partnership with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, International City/County Management Association and Rhode Island Sea Grant, has released an interagency guide that adapts smart growth principles to the unique needs of coastal and waterfront communities. Smart Growth for Coastal and Waterfront Communities builds on existing smart growth principles to offer 10 coastal and waterfront-specific guidelines that help manage development while balancing environmental, economic, and quality of life issues.

State of the Beach Report: Georgia
Georgia Home Beach Description Beach Access Water Quality Beach Erosion Erosion Response Beach Fill Shoreline Structures Beach Ecology Surfing Areas Website
2011 7 SOTB Banner Small.jpg