Environment North Carolina
The News and Observer
Lynn Bonner


This article was updated at 3:15 p.m. Tuesday with comments from the state recreational water quality program manager.

More than 100 North Carolina beaches and waterways were potentially unsafe for swimming at least one day last year because they were contaminated with bacteria that makes people sick.

A report by Environment North Carolina Research and Policy Center released Monday said 127 of 213 areas in the state had levels of fecal contamination that made swimming unsafe on at least one day in 2018.

Fecal contamination comes from runoff, sewer overflows and leaks, and industrial farms, the report said.

No one should stay away from a beach because they find one day of potentially unsafe water, Krista Early, clean water advocate at Environment North Carolina, said in an interview. The report is meant to highlight the importance of the federal Clean Water Act and the need for same-day public notification when water is found to be unhealthy, she said.

The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality tests water at 204 coastal beaches weekly or every other week between April and September, twice a month in October, and monthly from November through March, and posts advisories on its website.

Erin Bryan-Mullish, recreational water program manager at the state Division of Marine Fisheries, said the barrier island ocean water is clean, as is most of the water the state monitors.

Of 5,000 water samples collected, 98% met safe water standards, she said. As for the remaining 2%, most were not from the ocean, but from locations such as the Pamlico Sound.

The heavy rains and flooding from Hurricane Florence last year caused contamination at some of the ocean sites, she said.

Four of the top 10 sites in North Carolina with potentially unsafe swimming days were in Beaufort County. A Pamlico Sound access point in Belhaven had 11 potentially unsafe days, the most recorded in the state, according to the report.

The report used data from the National Water Quality Monitoring Council.

The other sites in Beaufort County were the Pamlico River-City Park, which had eight potentially unsafe swimming days, the Pamlico River at a railroad trestle, which had seven potentially unsafe days, and at the Ragged Point swim area in the Pamlico River, which had seven potentially unsafe days, according to the report.

The Pamlico and Pungo rivers run through Beaufort County and empty into Pamlico Sound.

Water pollution is always a concern, said Beaufort County Brian M. Alligood. “We are the end of the line for that river as it comes into the sound and there’s a lot coming down,” he said.

The possible sources of water contamination in Beaufort County are septic systems leaking into the groundwater, and old municipal wastewater systems, said Heather Deck, executive director of Sound Rivers.

Two sites in Carteret County were on the Environment North Carolina top 10 list for unsafe swimming days.

The NC Maritime Museum Sailing Camp on Taylors Creek had eight potentially unsafe swim days last year, and the Lennoxville Boat Ramp had six days, according to the report.

The town of Beaufort, which is in Carteret County, is working “aggressively to monitor and clean up our waterways,” Mayor Rett Newton said in a press release. “Water quality is a complex challenge that includes stormwater, failed septic systems, marine debris, intentional and unintentional discharges, and agricultural runoff. We are focused at the municipal level but due to influences outside our jurisdiction, we also need support from federal, county, state officials to keep our waters clean and safe.”

Water quality is a big concern for Carteret, said Tom Kies, president of the Carteret County Chamber of Commerce. But he was not concerned about the report’s findings on Carteret because, he said, the places highlighted are not areas where people go swimming.

“The town and the county check the quality of water on a daily basis,” Kies said in an interview. “We’re more concerned about people paying attention to the flags for rip currents,” he said.