Safe for Swimming?

Pollution at our beaches and how to prevent it
Released by: Environment North Carolina Research and Policy Center

Americans love the beach. From the warm waters of the Gulf Coast to the cliffside beaches of the Pacific Northwest to the shores of the Great Lakes, America’s beaches enrich our lives, providing us a place to escape everyday life, soak up the sun, and cool off in the hot summer months. In 2021, when many of us may still be reluctant to meet people indoors, the beach is an even more important getaway.

No matter where we live, we should be able to expect that the water at our beaches is clean and safe for swimming. In fact, that was a key goal when our nation adopted the Clean Water Act in 1972. But all too often, those arriving for a summer day at the beach are met by an advisory sign warning of unsafe water. Even worse, millions of Americans in recent years have been sickened by swimming in contaminated water, with many hospitalized.

As the following analysis shows, far too many beaches, in every coastal and Great Lakes state, can be unsafe for swimming.

The causes are often within our control. Reckless development destroys wetlands that filter pollutants; outdated sewer systems send raw waste directly into waterways; and agricultural practices create an excess of manure, which now often contains pathogens resistant to antibiotics, that finds its way into our waterways.

There are different culprits for beach pollution in different parts of the country. But every community can takeaction to both prevent pollution from being created in the first place, and to keep pollution from reaching the waters where our families go to swim. Doing so can protect public health and the environment, and help ensure that families across the country can look to the beach as a summer haven, now and in the future.