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Frequent Questions - Final Water Quality Standards for Coastal and Great Lakes Recreation Waters

What is the BEACH Act?

The Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health (BEACH) Act of 2000 amends the Clean Water Act to better protect public health at our Nation's beaches. The BEACH Act requires states and territories to adopt more protective water quality standards for pathogens and pathogen indicators in coastal recreational waters. The BEACH Act also requires us to take action, as we are in this final rule, if states fail to adopt appropriate water quality standards for coastal recreation waters. Appropriate standards are at least as protective of human health as our 1986 bacteria criteria. The BEACH Act also provide grants for monitoring of coastal recreation waters and public notification. Finally, the BEACH Act includes provisions related to studies on pathogen indicators and revision of recreational water quality criteria based on those studies.

What are coastal recreation waters?

The BEACH Act defines coastal recreation waters as the Great Lakes and marine coastal waters (including coastal estuaries) that states, territories, and tribes designate in their water quality standards for use for swimming, bathing, surfing, or similar water contact activities.

Why are we establishing federal water quality standards for coastal and Great Lakes recreation waters?

We are publishing federal health-based water quality standards for those states and territories bordering Great Lakes or coastal waters that have not yet adopted the standards required by the Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Act of 2000 (the BEACH Act). For those states and territories that have not adopted such criteria, the BEACH Act directs us to promptly propose federal standards for that state or territory. The Clean Water Act also requires that we publish final federal water quality standards 90 days after proposal. We published the proposed rule on July 9, 2004.

Which states and territories have adopted criteria "as protective of human health as" our 1986 bacteria criteria into their water quality standards?

Fourteen states and territories have adopted bacteria criteria that are "as protective of human health as" our 1986 bacteria criteria into their water quality standards: Alabama, American Samoa, Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands, Connecticut, Delaware, Guam, Indiana, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Jersey, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia and Washington.

Which states and territories do we include in this final rule?

We are publishing federal water quality standards for all or some waters in 21 states and territories:

  • Alaska
  • California
  • Louisiana
  • Maine
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • Minnesota
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Mississippi
  • New York
  • North Carolina
  • Ohio
  • Oregon
  • Hawaii
  • Illinois
  • Pennsylvania
  • Puerto Rico
  • Rhode Island
  • U.S. Virgin Islands
  • Wisconsin

Some states and territories have adopted water quality criteria as protective of human health as our bacteria criteria for some of their coastal recreation waters, but not all. In addition, some states and territories are now in the process of adopting revised water quality criteria into their water quality standards.

What is the same and what has changed from the proposed rule to the final rule?

In most ways the final rule is identical to the proposed rule. For example, the final rule maintains the same geometric means and single sample maximum criteria values for E. coli and enterococci as were proposed for purposes of beach monitoring and notification and it maintains the same position as proposed with regard to including non-human source bacteria as well as human source bacteria. Changes between the proposed and final rule include: (1) the exclusion of four additional states/territories (Delaware, Washington, South Carolina, and the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands) whose water quality standards have been determined since proposal to be "as protective of human health as" our 1986 bacteria criteria, (2) additional flexibility we are expressly allowing states and territories with regard to the use of the promulgated single sample maximum values in the implementation of their assessment, TMDL and NPDES permitting programs under the Clean Water Act, and (3) our decision to allow the Great Lakes states to choose either enterococci or E. coli as their water quality standard, consistent with the 1986 bacteria criteria document.

What will happen if, after the final rule, a state or territory adopts into its standards criteria that are as protective of human health as our 1986 bacteria criteria?

When a state or territory adopts criteria as protective of human health as our 1986 bacteria criteria into their standards, and submits them to us, we will approve them and they will become effective for making Clean Water Act decisions.

Is this rule legally applicable to non-coastal, or inland, recreational waters?

No. The rule is applicable to only coastal recreational waters. Section 502(21) of the Clean Water Act explicitly excludes from the definition of coastal recreation waters "inland waters; or water upstream of the mouth of a river or stream having an unimpaired natural connection with the open sea." We will approve pathogen standards for inland waters if the standards submitted by states to us for approval are found to be scientifically defensible for protecting the uses of these waterbodies. Parts of states with only inland waters are not subject to the BEACH Act requirements.

Will applying the new criteria result in more beach closings?

It depends on the state or territory. There may be an increase in the number of advisories posted at some beaches and a decrease at others. Some states and territories already use the criteria for making decisions to close beaches even though some states and territories have yet to adopt the criteria into their water quality standards. Whether the number of posted advisories increases or decreases, the important thing to remember is that these criteria offer better information to beach managers and swimmers about the risk than did the previously recommended fecal coliform criteria of 200/100mL.

My state hasn't adopted EPA's criteria and I am going to the beach. Is my beach safe?

The best way to obtain information about the safety of a beach is to contact local public health officials. Officials at the state and local level make public health decisions about beach use, and in many cases are in fact monitoring for E. coli or enterococci and making decisions regarding beach safety--even though the state may not yet have adopted these criteria into their water quality standards.

What are our current water quality criteria for bacteria?

Our current water quality criteria for bacteria use the "indicator organisms" E. coli and enterococci. Most disease-causing microbes exist at very low levels and are difficult and expensive to detect. Indicator organisms have been used for more than a century to help identify where fecal contamination has occurred, and therefore, where disease-causing microbes may be present. These organisms generally do not cause illness directly; however, they have characteristics that make them good indicators that fecal contamination has occurred and that harmful pathogens may be in the water. We set the level for E. coli in freshwater at 126/100mL. We set the levels for enterococci at 33/100mL in freshwater and 35/100mL in marine water.

Ambient Water Quality Criteria for Bacteria - 1986

Why did we develop these criteria?

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, we conducted studies considering several organisms as possible indicators, including fecal coliforms, E. coli, and enterococci. We found that enterococci was a very good predictor of illness in all waters, and E. coli was a very good predictor in fresh waters. As a result, we recommended in 1986 the use of E. coli for fresh recreational waters and enterococci for fresh and marine recreational waters. This rule is based on these 1986 recommendations.

What are our plans to update the criteria?

We are now developing new water quality criteria for the protection of swimmers, based on new epidemiological studies which we are conducting. This multi-year effort, required by BEACH Act, is being undertaken by our Office of Research and Development.

What are we doing to help states better protect their recreational waters?

We work collaboratively with states in a number of ways. We have awarded $32 million in grants to eligible states and territories to develop and implement beach water quality monitoring and notification programs in coastal and Great Lakes recreational waters. In addition, we fund beach-related research and provides technical support to states.

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