If you’ve visited any of the Great Lakes this summer, did it appear that the beach was clean and safe for swimming and recreation? Maybe you only dipped in your toes because muck or questionable floating debris gave you the ick. Or was there a Blue Flag flying, reassuring you that it was safe to cannonball into the waters?
It’s the responsibility of managers to monitor and communicate whether the water quality is “swimmable” so visitors can use and enjoy beaches. Beach owners, operators and custodians in Canada and the United States regularly monitor weather and public health indicators (such as the presence of certain bacteria like E. coli) to ensure beaches are safe and sanitary for recreation during summer months. In addition, beach managers may conduct annual and routine environmental health and safety surveys as a best practice for managing public health risks.
In the United States, beach managers may conduct what is called a Beach Sanitary Survey, while in Canada an Environmental Health and Safety Survey is used. These are systematic surveys of safety and sources of water pollution that could impact recreational beaches.
Meant to be conducted annually, these surveys help beach managers identify threats to water quality, safety issues and solutions to fix pollution problems. Environmental sanitary surveys are one important way to better protect the use and enjoyment of the Great Lakes so that they are safe and “swimmable,” one of the general objectives of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.
The Health Professionals Advisory Board and Great Lakes Beach Association joint project looked at how Canadian and US beach managers use environmental or sanitary surveys to understand environmental and human health risks at their beaches, and whether the results inform management actions to make beaches more “swimmable.” Questionnaires were circulated in the summer of 2019 to early 2022.
Overall, beach managers who responded represented a total of 1,155 beaches around the Great Lakes basin in Ontario and the United States. Most respondents (68 percent) said they regularly conduct annual surveys, with 11 responses covering Canadian beaches and 23 responses covering US beaches.
Beach managers regularly sample the water quality at their beaches, measuring indicators of environmental and health threats such as levels of E. coli bacteria. Day-to-day water quality and conditions are shared with the public in several ways that might include flags or signs, website posts or mobile applications. If the water quality satisfies relevant human health standards, the beach may remain open. If not, managers post swimming advisories, or, in extreme cases, may close the beach for recreation until the water quality improves.
However, routine monitoring does not necessarily identify the specific cause or source of the pollution that leads to a beach closure. Environmental and sanitary surveys are a useful tool because they can help beach managers identify sources of pollution and health threats. The surveys also provide important safety information and inform long-term planning, including actions to fix identified pollution problems. Surveys are also useful to public health experts and beach managers to help create predictive models for water quality forecasting.
Among those responding to the questionnaire, most beach managers (59 percent) reported using sanitary surveys to try to identify the specific source of fecal pollution. They reported that geese and gull fecal droppings, parking lot and stormwater runoff, and sewage were the most common sources of fecal pollution affecting their beaches. However, most beach managers could only identify some of the sources of fecal pollution impacting their beaches; 29 percent knew of all fecal pollution sources. More than half (58 percent) of respondents said their surveys identified the potential health threat of algal blooms at beaches.
Top 10 potential health threats respondents identified through environmental surveys; Figure 4 of the Health Professionals Advisory Board joint report with the Great Lakes Beach Association.
Identifying where pollution comes from is an important function of environmental and sanitary surveys because they can inform actions beach managers take to fix the problem and protect public health. Nearly two in three (65 percent) of beach managers that completed the questionnaire said their annual environmental survey led them to take actions to remediate pollution problems.
Given that geese and gull droppings were a top threat identified through annual surveys, most beach managers reported taking waterfowl control actions as a response, followed by beach landscaping and sand grooming. Responses to the questionnaire described many instances where these actions improved or totally fixed the problem as measured by environmental surveys taken after they implemented the solutions.
Types of mitigation activities recommended as a result of conducting annual environmental and sanitary surveys; Figure 6 of the Health Professionals Advisory Board joint report with the Great Lakes Beach Association.
The report points to case studies such as Bluffer’s Park Beach in Toronto, Ontario, where surveys led to expanded E. coli monitoring and fecal pollution source tracking that, in turn, helped guide control and restoration efforts. Another case study of Racine, Wisconsin, shows how restoration efforts improved beach water quality and created positive economic outcomes for the local community.
Beach surveys can help beach managers better ensure the safe use and enjoyment of all Great Lakes beaches. But what about the 26 percent of beach managers who responded to the board’s questionnaire reporting that they do not conduct annual sanitary surveys? Several respondents noted that staff and funding limited their efforts to conduct such surveys on a routine and annual basis. Few reported using data from community science efforts, and others noted COVID impacts affecting their capacity.
The Health Professionals Advisory Board and Great Lakes Beach Association recommends reliable and long-term funding to help beach managers conduct environmental health and safety surveys, or beach sanitary surveys, and providing resources so beach managers take important follow-up steps to identify and fix threats to public health that ultimately result in more “swimmable” beaches around the Great Lakes.
Many thanks to Eric Hembrough for contributions to this story. Eric Hembrough was an intern (2022) with the US Section of the IJC in Washington, D.C.
Allison Voglesong Zejnati is public affairs specialist at the IJC’s Great Lakes Regional Office in Windsor, Ontario.