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NC environmental panel votes to study transition to statewide E.coli standard for recreational waters

Jordan Lake, Durham, NC
Dave DeWitt
Parts of Jordan Lake are classified as Class B waterways. These waters will soon be tested for E. coli to make sure it's safe for people to use recreationally.

The North Carolina Environmental Management Commission (EMC) voted Thursday to begin work on a proposal to adopt E. coli for recreational waters statewide.

This change comes after years of advocacy from several environmental advocates.

"This has been a priority for all of the North Carolina river keepers for such a long time," said Haw RiverKeeper Emily Sutton. "We're excited that the EMC has committed to move forward on this."

Currently, Class B waterways, which are designated for recreation, are tested for fecal coliform to make sure it's safe for swimming, diving and other activities. However, the EPA has considered E. coli a better indicator of fecal contamination since 2012.

In 2021, the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) conducted its triennial review of water quality standards. As part of this review, officials recommended that 19 counties in western North Carolina adopt E. coli testing standards for Class B waters. DEQ changed course after receiving dozens of public comments requesting a statewide standard.

"This is important because E. coli is a more accurate pathogen indicator than a fecal standard," Sutton said. "So if we are able to have an E. coli standard, we can better understand the health of our streams ... and it's more cost effective to test for."

In its vote last week, the EMC directed DEQ staff to return to the commission in May with a timeline of completion for the evaluation of the statewide recreation standard for E. coli. This action is separate from the 2021 triennial review. EMC said it will revisit rule making regarding E. coli standards before the next triennial review.

North Carolina is one of the last states in the country to move toward adopting this standard.

Editor’s Note: The headline in an earlier version of this story suggested a proposal for statewide E. coli standards for recreational water had been adopted. However, the proposal is not policy yet. 

Celeste Gracia covers the environment for WUNC. She has been at the station since September 2019 and started off as morning producer.
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