Report: Ocean City, Assateague Water Quality Fine

OCEAN CITY – Water quality at beaches across the country were deemed unsafe for swimming for a record number of days last year and the number of no-swim days more than doubled from the year before, but the waters around coastal Worcester County including Ocean City generally received a clean bill of health with one major exception.

According to “Testing the Waters: a Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches,” an independent report released this week by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), pollution and poor water quality resulted in over 25,000 closings and health advisory days at vacation beaches around the country in 2006, more than twice the number recorded in 2005.

NRDC officials said the number of beach closures and advisories across the country last year threaten public safety and have an adverse effect on the public’s confidence in their swimming beaches.

“Vacations are being ruined and families can’t use the beaches in their communities because they are polluted,” said Nancy Stoner, director of NRDC’s water program. “Kids are getting sick, all because of sewage and contaminated run-off from outdated, under-funded treatment programs.”

The NRDC prepared the report by compiling closure and advisory data on 3,500 vacation beaches throughout the U.S. In Maryland, beaches were tested from Ocean City and Assateague to the coastal bays and the Chesapeake and everywhere in between and the results showed water samples exceeding the standard for bacteria in the state increased to 13 percent in 2006 from 9 percent in 2005.

Maryland issued 19 advisories and 12 closures in 2006, but most are concentrated in inland locations along the Chesapeake or its tributaries. For example, locations in Kent County accounted for over 50 percent of all closures and advisories in the state in 2006. There were no closures or advisories at any public beaches in Worcester County although one trouble spot was identified.

The one exception in Worcester County was Public Landing along Chincoteague Bay near Snow Hill, which exceeded acceptable standards for bacteria 40 percent of the time, according to weekly monitoring tests at the site. By comparison, weekly tests at several monitoring sites in Ocean City and Assateague Island revealed the beaches exceeded acceptable levels of bacteria in zero to three percent of the tests.

The NRDC report suggests aging and poorly designed sewage and stormwater systems hold much of the blame for beach water pollution. The report also said careless urban sprawl in coastal areas is devouring wetlands and other natural buffers such as dunes and beach grass that would otherwise help filter out dangerous pollution.

In the case of Public Landing, local environmental groups point to failing and aging private septic systems in area as the major reason the public beach exceeded acceptable levels of bacteria 40 percent of the time in 2006.

Assateague Coastkeeper Kathy Phillips said this week the high marks earned by the ocean beaches in Worcester County should be tempered with the miserable score achieved by Public Landing.

“While some might argue that Atlantic Ocean beaches will show a lower exceedance rate because of the flushing actions of the tides and the currents, the results of this report clearly point to a much greater problem in Public Landing,” she said. “What we have at Public Landing is a situation that will continue to keep Public Landing’s recreational waters until certain conditions are rectified.”

Phillips noted the Worcester County Environmental Programs Department does conduct regular water testing at Public Landing in accordance with state law and posts notices at the site when the waters test unsafe. The test results are also posted on the county’s website.

However, she said failing private septic systems are largely responsible for the poor testing performance at Public Landing and urged local officials to address the problem.

“A 40-percent exceedance rate is totally unacceptable for our citizens and visitors who use the Public Landing recreation area,” she said.

Phillips explained the Public Landing neighborhood has very old septic systems that leach enterococcus into the groundwater, which then flows along ditches and grassy swales during high rain events and eventually ends up discharging out of two drainage pipes pier at the parking lot. She said a short-term fix would be to redesign the parking lot with a vegetated buffer along the bulkhead and a bio-retention garden around the storm drain.

In the longer term, Phillips called on local elected officials to take a more proactive role in weaning residents off private septic systems.

“The County Commissioners have been hiding their heads in the sand over the septic issue in Public Landing for too long,” she said. “This report screams for their attention.”