The Effects of Water Pollution During Summer

On a warm summer day, nothing feels quite as nice as a refreshing dip in the water. Until the water is contaminated, that is. In the past year, nearly 60 percent of the 4,500 tested beaches across the country had water pollution levels (on at least one occasion) that put swimmers at risk of getting sick. Well over 2,000 beaches surpassed the EPA’s margin of safety. Polluted waters can lead to a variety of stomach and respiratory illnesses in swimmers, and ultimately cause an estimated 57 million cases of waterborne illnesses every year.

According to the EPA’s most recent Water Quality Assessment data, fecal matter from sewage overflows and stormwater runoff in highly settled areas are the two of the largest causes of waterway contamination.

photo of beach with sign warning swimmers not to swim in contaminated water


Stormwater flowing over both suburban and urban areas pick up fecal matter from pets and wildlife along the way. This waste carries bacteria which leads to illnesses. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that from 2000 to 2014, 140 outbreaks caused by recreational water contamination caused nearly 5,000 illnesses and two deaths. Consuming seafood harvested from contaminated waters can also cause an equally harmful health threat. In addition, studies in California show that swimmers directly in the flow of storm drains are 50% more likely to develop an illness than those who are just 400 more yards away from the same drainage flow.

Sewage Overflows

The EPA estimated that 850 billion gallons of untreated water were released into waterways as a result of sewage overflows. Sewage contamination contains human waste comprised of bacteria, viruses, and parasites capable of causing diseases.

The Effects of Fecal Contamination

Data from the 2018 National Water Quality Monitoring Councils’ Water Quality Portal showed staggering levels of contaminants from stormwater runoff and sewage overflows. Approximately 58 percent of beach sites tested in 29 coastal and Great Lakes states had unsafe levels of fecal contamination for swimming on at least one day.

Tested sites were unsafe if bacteria levels exceeded the EPA’s ‘Beach Action Value.’ These levels were reached in every region of the country.

  • Gulf Coast Beaches – 329 sites (85 percent of the 385 sites tested) were unsafe for at least one day
  • West Coast Beaches – 573 sites (67 percent of the 850 sites tested) were unsafe for at least one day
  • East Coast Beaches – 1,134 sites (48 percent of the 2,373 sites tested) were unsafe for at least one day
  • Great Lake Beaches – 418 sites (75 percent of the 558 sites tested) were unsafe for at least one day

Keeping our waterways clean, especially during the summer months, is critical. Luckily, we can all help reduce the number of contaminants reaching our favorite beaches and swimming holes.

Here are some helpful tips to stay safe at the beach this summer by preventing water pollution:

Prevent Urban Runoff Pollution

  • Advocate for natural and green infrastructure that prevent bacteria-laden pollution, such as rain barrels, permeable pavement, urban greenspace, and green roofs.
  • Protect and restore natural infrastructure such as wetlands that can filter bacteria, sediments, and nutrients.
  • Wash your car at a commercial car wash, or on an unpaved surface so the excess water can be absorbed by the ground.
  • Keep yard clippings out of the street. Sweep driveways and yards instead of hosing them down and letting residual materials flow into the storm drains.
  • Clean up oil spills and fix leaking automobiles.
urban water pollution shows plastic and other matter in ocean

Prevent Sewage Pollution

  • Advocate for public investments in fixing aging sewer systems.
  • Advocate for upgrade or relocation of wastewater facilities that are in danger of overflowing during storms and floods.
  • Ensure frequent inspections and proper maintenance of residential septic systems.

Prevent Manure Pollution

  • Help design best practices for reducing manure pollution from cropland, including the maintenance of conservation buffers set up around fields.
  • Encourage livestock operations to raise animals on rotational pastures.

Will you be able to put these into effect in efforts to stop stormwater pollution? What else are you doing to keep our waterways clean?

Hurricanes and Water Quality

The United States is currently in the midst of hurricane season, which runs from June 1 – November 30. With the threat of hurricanes, such as Hurricane Matthew, come concerns over flooding, property damage, and power outages. In addition, falling trees and debris, broken but live electrical wires, and areas of flooding pose a major threat to human safety. However, there is another significant but often overlooked threat to human health that frequently occurs during hurricanes: water quality degradation.

Hurricane Sandy devastated New Jersey and caused serious water quality issues
Hurricane Sandy devastated New Jersey and caused serious water quality issues

Hurricanes typically bring with them massive amounts of precipitation – far more than the earth can handle. These surges create giant runoff situations, where pollution, contaminants, trash, and chemicals from the ground are pushed into the local water supply. To make matters worse, water treatment plants are often not able to handle the sudden, significant increase in contaminants, and also may not be working at full capacity due to power outages. This flooding also affects water mains and household lines, sometimes causing the water to bypass water treatment altogether.

But that’s not all. The pounding rain and storm surges brought by hurricanes can also overwhelm sewer systems, causing sewage overflows. The massive flooding of Hurricane Sandy in 2012 overwhelmed the region’s wastewater treatment plants, causing 11 billion gallons of largely untreated sewage to flow into waterways and city streets, mostly in New York City and New Jersey. In addition, the pounding surge caused significant damage to treatment plants, further complicating the issue, and contaminating water supplies.

Lastly, overwhelming amounts of rain and surge as seen with hurricanes can cause excessive amounts of dissolved organic matter (DOM) — soluble organic materials composed of the remains of organisms such as plants and animals and their waste products — to enter waterways. DOM causes a plethora of problems in drinking water: it easily binds with metal pollutants and carries them to reservoirs and lakes, it blocks pathogen-reducing ultraviolet rays, and it also enhances the formation of disinfection byproducts, which are carcinogenic.

T&H employee-owners show their preference for drinking municipal tap water over bottled water
T&H employee-owners show their strong preference for drinking municipal tap water over bottled water

Hurricanes clearly have the ability to not only damage personal property and threaten human safety, but also wreak havoc on our nation’s water supply. The combination of increased contamination, decreased treatment, overflowing sewer systems, and excessive DOM in the water has the potential to cause serious water quality issues. Therefore, during hurricane events, it is always smart to be prepared. Prior to the storm, stock up on bottled water. While municipal water should always be the drink of choice in normal day-to-day living since bottled water has its own set of problems, the safe choice when water quality issues arise as a result of a hurricane is bottled water. After the storm, check on the status of your area’s water quality. Until the authorities give your local municipal water the all clear, stick to bottled water for drinking.

For up-to-the-minute updates on Hurricane Matthew, please visit And stay safe!