‘Capitol Connection’ – Have Fun at the Beach!

July 18, 2012

Summer is officially in full swing! Now that schools are out, vacations have been planned and the warm weather has arrived, many of us are looking for ways to beat the heat and have some fun. Oftentimes, the first thing that comes to mind is a trip to the beach. When researching where to go, I am sure that you have seen or heard news reports that a beach is closed after water quality testing. What makes the water unsafe to swim and who decides to close a beach? And how can it reopen only a few days later? These are some of the questions that I asked myself and that I wanted to share with you this week.

Starting the week before Memorial Day in May and ending with Labor Day in September, the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) is responsible for testing 23 different swimming areas owned and managed by the state to ensure that the water quality is safe. These sites include the four coastal state parks, 17 inland state parks and two state forests. Locally, the state tests Stratton Brook State Park of Simsbury and Burr Pond State Park of Torrington. However, municipal swimming areas are tested by local health departments, so keep this in mind when checking if a location is open or not.

Each week, DEEP seasonal employees travel around the state to collect water samples from these swimming areas. Once collected, these samples are taken to the state Department of Public Health (DPH) laboratory for testing. Specifically, lab scientists test for the presence of indicator bacteria which are not dangerous by themselves but instead are used to indicate the possibility of a health risk due to contamination. In marine water, this indicator bacteria is Enterococcus, while E. Coli is the indicator for fresh water.

When scientists determine that the level of indicator bacteria surpasses the amount allowed by public health criteria, an additional test will be taken to make sure that the result was not an error. If these samples register above the acceptable level, then officials from both DEEP and the DPH will make a determination together whether to close the swimming area. According to DEEP, a closure “is based upon professional judgment which considers the magnitude of the exceedance and the results of a sanitary survey of the watershed.”

Periods of significant rainfall can increase the amount of fertilizers that runoff of land and end up in rivers, lakes and streams. These nutrients then help bacteria and algae grow and reproduce which can create unsafe conditions for us to swim in. Beaches are closed when there is an increased risk of illness due to these contaminants. The swimming area will be reopened when sampling shows that bacteria levels fall off. Believe it or not, these levels can decrease relatively quickly, meaning the beach can reopen shortly after being closed.

Ultimately, make sure you get out there and have some fun this summer! I hope that you find this week’s column informative and interesting as you plan trips to the beach. If you would like to check whether a beach is open or closed, the DEEP has two useful resources for you to plan ahead. The State Parks Swimming Area Water Quality Status information phone line is toll free and available 24 hours per day by calling (866) CTPARKS or (866) 287-2757 and choosing option #5. On weekdays, the DEEP website also lists whether a beach is open or closed, which may be accessed by visiting www.ct.gov/DEEP/BeachStatus.