Local Water Quality Saluted n National Beach Report

BERLIN – While many American beaches have polluted, unhealthy water, the Ocean City and Assateague beaches showed no reports of contaminants in local ocean waves, according to a national report released this week.

“Everyone works very hard to keep it that way, even with 300,000 people visiting,” said Shelly Dawson, chair of the local Surfrider Foundation.

Overall, Maryland was listed as eighth in the United States for beach water quality, including Ocean City and Assateague beaches, as well as two beaches at Sandy Point State Park in Anne Arundel County and the beach at Point Lookout State Park in St. Mary’s County.

Nearby beaches in Delaware and Virginia also got extremely high ratings for beach water quality in the report.

Ocean City’s beaches have received high marks for water quality over the last few years, the frequency of testing and promptly posting advisories when necessary on the beaches themselves and on the Internet.

One Ocean City beach site was awarded a five-star rating in the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) annual “Testing the Waters: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches” report.

Worcester County ocean beaches posted no exceedances of ocean water health standards in 2008, meaning that any contamination levels were below the acceptable limts.

“The community’s become aware of the gold mine we sit in,” said Dawson. “We realized a long time ago that without that surf zone and without that clean sandy beach we would not have the economic machine.”

Assateague Coastkeeper Kathy Phillips said, “Oceanfront beaches in Maryland continue to receive high marks in this annual report. Fortunately for Ocean City, but not for our coastal bays, all of the city’s stormwater runoff drains directly to the bays and not to the ocean. Ocean City’s treated wastewater is pumped through a pipe into the ocean far offshore, so inshore monitoring consistently reveals very low levels of contamination.”

Local beaches are bucking the nationwide trend, which shows, according to the report, that the water at many American beaches is polluted with contaminants that pose a health threat to swimmers.

Across the nation, 7 percent of beach water samples violated health standards in 2008, but Maryland beaches decreased from 7 percent violations in 2007 to 2 percent in 2008.

Worcester County ocean beaches showed zero violations in 2008.

“I would expect it to be good, and continue to be good,” said Dave Wilson, director of the Maryland Coastal Bays Program.

“The fact it’s an economic machine will help protect it,” said Dawson.

Worcester County’s overall rating was not so stellar in the 2007 report, which showed a 40-percent exceedance rate in the county.

The reduction came from a the elimination of part of the Public Landing pier swimming site, east of Snow Hill, from the testing sites considered for the NRDC report. Only samples from the cleaner water towards the end of the pier were used. This reduced the exceedance rate at that site by half.

“That 19 percent was still a high percentage of unsafe swimming days. Last year the county moved forward to implement better stormwater management practices at the Public Landing swimming pier parking lot, installing a new vegetated buffer between the parking lot and Chincoteague Bay,” said Phillips.

One in five swimming days at Public Landing last year the water was too contaminated for swimming, Phillips pointed out.

The NRDC report does not include testing for health contaminants in the coastal bays.

One of the reasons the ocean waters bordering Assateague and Ocean City are so healthy is the buffering effect of the coastal bays, which are the first stop for most county run-off.

“Most of everything drains into the coastal bays and not into the ocean,” said Wilson.

The coastal bays do carry more bacteria than local ocean waters, but little bacteria testing is done because of the expense and due to the focus on water quality indicators that impact the flora and fauna.

“It’s hard to say without good numbers whether there’s a serious bacteria issue in the coastal bays,” Wilson said.

If there is a problem, that would be closer in to the shore and not in more open bay waters, officials indicate.

While the coastal bays are not often used for swimming, although there are some who do, the bays are heavily used for recreational boating, fishing and personal watercraft.

“Would I go swim in the bay? Of course I would,” said Wilson.