Summer days are here again and you’re probably thinking about all the time you’re going to spend at Connecticut’s many beaches during the year’s hottest months. Before you hit the water, though, the first thing you should check is the water quality at your favorite swimming spot.
Monitoring the level of harmful bacteria at each of the state’s beaches is a responsibility assigned to local health departments. Under federal law, they have to take a sample (or samples) every week to test for bacteria levels. Some departments take samples more often. If the levels are too high, the beach will be closed until they come down.
Not all Connecticut beaches are the same and the level of harmful bacteria in each section of Long Island Sound can change, quite literally, with the weather. Every two years, Save the Sound takes the data from local health departments, adds weather data, and provides an in-depth look at the overall water quality at each beach along the Sound, from Connecticut to New York. While the water quality of each beach changes over time, one thing remains constant: wet weather is a major contributor to an increase in bacteria.
“Stormwater picks up pollutants and brings it to the water,” explains Peter Linderoth, Save the Sound’s Director of Water Quality, who oversees the Beach Report. This is a particularly large problem in more developed areas that are likely to have more impervious surfaces, like roads, paved parking lots, sidewalks, and roofs.
“This is important engineering; we want that water to clear away from structures. We don’t want to be dealing with flooding,” he says. “But at the same time, if it hits those surfaces and then goes into underground pipes and just goes directly to waterways, it’s picking up a lot of pollutants along the way.”
Those pollutants are then deposited into streams and rivers and sometimes directly into the oceans. In some cases, like with two beaches very close to one another in Milford (designated Anchor Beach 1 and Anchor Beach 2 in the report), a nearby storm pipe can cause drastically different results.
“One of them has a large stormwater pipe that discharges right onto the beach and then around the corner and around a rock outcropping is the other beach, which consistently gets really good grades, no large stormwater pipe,” says Linderoth. “That large stormwater pipe is draining a section of upland area and bringing that stormwater sludge with it and it’s part of the issue leading to the poorer grades at that beach compared to one that’s right around the corner.”
Also contributing to an increase in pollutants is degraded or outdated infrastructure. If a sewage or septic system is leaking, or if stormwater pipes become overloaded, that can cause an increase in fecal bacteria and other pollutants at the shores.
Through the efforts of local health departments, Linderoth and his team have access to two decades of water quality data available to the public online. That has also allowed them to view a small historical record which helps them notice trends. Over the last few decades, Connecticut has seen an increase in both damaging storms and extended periods of drought and the state is poised to see increasingly large swings in weather in the future. Linderoth says this is something he’s watching closely.
“This particular type of data has some pretty high inter-annual variabilities and things along those lines, but just looking at the last beach report to this one, we noted a 2% increase in wet weather fails,” he says, noting that as drought conditions worsen, so does the effect of those conditions on wetter weather.
Despite the fact that his job is to track dangerous beach conditions, Linderoth stresses that Connecticut’s beaches tend to score very high overall and several of those beaches have shown great improvement over time. He doesn’t want his work to scare people away from enjoying their summer fun. Rather, he hopes it gets communities involved in improving their own local beaches for years to come.
“If people aren’t happy with what they’re seeing, we’re very approachable. Come to Save the Sound. Talk to us. We’re happy to engage in the discussions,” he says. “But also, show up to public meetings. Let their elected officials know we’re not happy about the grade we’re seeing at this beach. We want to see change.