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National Public Health Organization Supports Riverkeeper Positions on Beach Management

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Swimmers at Croton Point Beach have the best assurance of good water quality at any public beach on the Hudson: Water quality consistently shows good water quality, with rare exception, and the water is tested weekly, consistent with Environmental Protection Agency recommendations. Photo courtesy Toughman Triathlon.
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Swimmers at Croton Point Beach have the best assurance of good water quality at any public beach on the Hudson: With rare exception, sampling shows good water quality, and Westchester County Department of Health tests the water weekly, consistent with Environmental Protection Agency recommendations. Photo courtesy Toughman Triathlon.

Swimmers at Croton Point Beach have the best assurance of good water quality at any public beach on the Hudson: Water quality consistently shows good water quality, with rare exception, and the water is tested weekly, consistent with Environmental Protection Agency recommendations. Photo courtesy Toughman Triathlon.

The National Association of County and City Health Officials has approved a policy that is consistent with several of Riverkeeper’s positions on recreational water quality and beach management.

“The National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO) urges national, state, and local health departments and related agencies to engage policymakers, government agencies, non-governmental organizations, businesses, and communities to produce and support policies, legislation, regulations, programs, research, and resources to promote healthy and safe swimming,” the Statement of Policy on Recreational Water Safety reads.

Specifically, the consistent policy elements include:

Improving regulatory oversight of recreational waters, including … lakes, rivers, and oceans … where possible.

Riverkeeper has called for widespread water quality sampling of waters like the Hudson River that are used widely for recreation. Currently, testing even at some public beaches on the Hudson River is too infrequent, and much recreation occurs away from designated beaches.

Implementing standardized and uniform recreational water testing guidelines across health departments.

Riverkeeper has called for the adoption of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Recreational Water Quality Criteria in New York State, which would improve management of swimming areas by, among other things, setting a Beach Action Value used to notify the public when bacterial counts exceed thresholds scientifically determined to be associated with higher rates of illness from exposure from swimming, tubing, child water play and other recreational pursuits that are likely to result in ingestion of water or full immersion. Riverkeeper also supports the use of Enterococcus as a single indicator to be used in fresh or salt water, and the phasing out of fecal coliform as an indicator, given that the EPA has not recommended its use since 1986.

Increasing levels and sources of funding for local health departments to secure resources for conducting adequate surveillance of recreational water environments and investigating incidents such as outbreaks, pool chemical-associated events, and drowning.

The report highlights the erosion of capacity at health departments, an issue that mirrors the erosion of capacity at the Department of Environmental Conservation. Both have consequences for environmental and public health. “From 2008 to 2013, local health departments lost approximately 50,000 employees,” according to the policy statement. Environmental health services were particularly hard hit, with 13.6% of local health departments operating with fewer or no staff devoted to water services.

Riverkeeper supports expanded budgets for the Department of Environmental Conservation’s Division of Water, as well as Department of Health, to ensure that funding is adequate to accurately assess the quality of recreational waters. The Division of Water has 30% fewer staff and about one-seventh the budget, in today‚Äôs dollars, as it did a quarter century ago.

Increasing use of predictive modeling to monitor public beaches in order to decrease community exposure to infectious and chemical pathogens and decrease the number of days beaches are closed unnecessarily.

New York State beaches on the Great Lakes, Long Island Sound and the Atlantic coast use models, typically based on high frequency sampling, rainfall data and tides, to predict water quality and make beach closure decisions proactively. Hudson River beaches are managed using bacterial tests that yield results only 24 hours after a water sample has been taken. Riverkeeper’s sampling program has demonstrated that rainfall is a significant factor in water quality in many locations. Rain following a test early in the week could result in poor water quality just when most people are swimming over the weekend. Good predictive water quality models would better protect the public.

Encouraging cooperation between public health officials, owners of recreational water facilities, and the community to promote healthy and safe swimming practices.

Riverkeeper wants to be a partner to local health departments, and we will reach out with resources to encourage cooperation and use of the best data available.

It’s important to note that water quality is only one safety concern associated with swimming. “One of the most serious health risks associated with recreational waters is drowning,” the policy reads.

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