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Environment

Fecal bacteria levels found at Carolina Beach and Holden Beach exceeded EPA standards last year

87 beaches in North Carolina were considered potentially unsafe for swimming at least one day in 2020. Seven beaches were considered potentially unsafe at least a quarter of the days tested, including Carolina Beach and Holden Beach.
87 beaches in North Carolina were considered potentially unsafe for swimming at least one day in 2020. Seven beaches were considered potentially unsafe at least a quarter of the days tested, including Carolina Beach and Holden Beach.

Last summer, Environment North Carolina Research and Policy Center commenced its annual analysis of bacteria testing. Each week, beaches and rivers across the state were tested for E. coli, a bacteria found in human and animal feces. The results were then compared to recreational water quality standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Based on the bacteria levels, this year's "Safe for Swimming" report found that 87 beaches were considered potentially unsafe for swimming at least one day in 2020. Seven beaches were considered potentially unsafe at least a quarter of the days tested, including Carolina Beach and Holden Beach.

Other North Carolina beaches found to be potentially unsafe for swimming at least once in 2020 were Pamlico River at Havens Gardens Park, Pamlico River at the railroad trestle in Beaufort County, Beach by Vandemere Creek, Jockey’s Ridge Beach, Beach at Pantego Creek, Beach at Union Point, Hancock Creek and Lennoxville Boat Ramp in Beaufort.

Environment NC adds that swimmers could also be at risk at additional beaches where no bacterial testing was conducted or available.

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According to the EPA's website, the agency "recommends E. coli as the best indicator of health risk from water contact in recreational waters."

Jill Howell is the Pamlico-Tar Riverkeeper with Sound Rivers, a nonprofit that monitors river watersheds. And she explains that exposure to fecal bacteria doesn’t just sound gross, but can result in gastrointestinal illness, respiratory disease, ear and eye infections, and skin rashes.

So, the million-dollar question: why is there poop in the water?

“We see this contamination coming from sources like leaking septic systems and properly functioning wastewater treatment plants, stormwater runoff, and industrial animal agriculture operations," says Howell.

The report lists a few key ways to avoid further contamination at beaches: reduce urban runoff pollution, reduce sewage pollution, and reduce manure pollution.

Researchers note that the issue is preventable. And thanks to ever-evolving technology, there are now countless stormwater runoff prevention possibilities. Permeable pavement is just one example.

Meanwhile, this year the state Department of Transportation is undergoing a major stormwater design manual update — which could result in further implementation of sustainable solutions for reducing runoff statewide.

Manure pollution could be a more significant hurdle to overcome. According to environmental nonprofits — who protested the state's now-official Farm Act of 2021 — pollution from industrial hog operations continues to pollute waterways and the air.

Environmental NC additionally recommends more education and outreach — including the use of the EPA’s most protective “Beach Action Value” bacteria standard for posting beach advisories, and established systems for same-day water testing and warnings. And, of course — more water testing requires funding.

If you're concerned about the water quality at the beach near you, you can check out theswimguide.org to see bacteria levels at specific beaches — and possibly prevent your daycation from turning into a total crapshoot.

Read the full 2021 report here.

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