Is It Safe To Go Into The Waters Around Here?

Is It Safe To Go Into The Waters Around Here?
07 01 Color Other WEB

Kathy Phillips

Special To The Dispatch

In our coastal watershed and along our ocean beaches, the answer almost always is a resounding yes. But after heavy rainfall, like we’ve been experiencing in the past few weeks, the answer isn’t so simple.

Runoff from rainstorms carries pollutants and contaminants off lawns, parking lots, roadways and farm fields into our waterways. Bacteria enters our coastal waterways from multiple sources. Failing septic systems, sewer leaks, untreated boat waste, agricultural land application of animal manures and pet/wildlife feces are all potential sources. Unsafe levels of bacteria in our waterways can occur after heavy rainfall events.

The most common type of infection comes from fecal bacteria in the water from human and animal waste. When bacteria infect a healthy adult, the person usually suffers gastrointestinal symptoms, but the infection isn’t life-threatening. People with impaired immune systems and some other diseases may suffer more severe consequences.

If you want to know if it’s safe to go in the water, there’s an app for that. It’s called “Swim Guide” and can be downloaded to all smart phones for free. The app, created by Waterkeepers in Canada, is now uploaded with weekly data from all over the United States for swimming beaches, swimming holes and all kinds of waterways where people recreate in the water.

Our local Waterkeeper program, the Assateague Coastkeeper, monitors our back bays and creeks for water quality and posts this information to the Swim Guide app. We also share on Swim Guide the ocean beaches water quality status monitored by Worcester and Accomack counties, so visitors and residents can easily see the water quality for all our local beaches and water recreation areas by simply opening the Swim Guide app on their phone.

Worcester County monitors swimming beaches like Public Landing and the ocean beaches of Ocean City and Assateague Island. Assateague Coastkeeper samples watersport recreation locations in Isle of Wight Bay, St. Martin River, Turville Creek, Herring Creek and upper Ayers Creek. Sample results are generally reported on Thursdays and the Swim Guide website and phone app are updated as soon as possible to reflect the latest results.

The water samples are measured for Entroccoci bacteria, which serve as an indicator bacteria for pathogens in the water. The Environmental Protection Agency has set a threshold of 104 colony forming units per 100 milliliters (cfu/100ml) as the single test limit for weekly testing. Samples recording less than 104 cfu/100ml are therefore considered “safe levels.” Samples recording 104 cfu/100ml or greater are considered “unsafe” due to the increased risk of illness. While only Worcester County or the Maryland Department of the Environment can actually issue a “swimming advisory,” the Swim Guide app will at least let you know if water quality is above or below the EPA threshold.

A number of favorite water recreation sites in our back bays where people like to kayak, stand up paddleboard, or tube behind boats have been experiencing elevated levels of bacteria above the EPA threshold of 104cfu/100ml over the past two weeks, corresponding to the exceptionally heavy rainfall events.

These sites are near shopping center or residential stormwater outfall drainage systems. We can all help to keep our waterways clean and safe for recreating by first and foremost picking up after our pets, but also cleaning up garbage and trash, and not littering, so all this mess doesn’t get washed down the drain and into our bays, creeks or river.

The following are pieces of advice to protect yourself from infection from water contact:

  • Don’t swim after a rainstorm. The general rule is to wait 48 hours after a storm, but the bigger the storm, the longer you should stay out of the water. This does not necessarily hold true for our ocean beaches because most of the stormwater runoff does not drain to the ocean, it drains to our bays.
  • Wash off with warm water and soap when you come out of the bayside waterways.
  • Don’t swim if you have open cuts, sores, or scratches, or protect them with waterproof bandages.
  • Don’t swim in water that is very warm (mid 80s) or water that looks polluted, such as with trash, algae, or a film on the surface.

Have a safe and healthy summer enjoying clean waterways and help keep them that way by picking up after your pets, planting vegetative buffers between your lawn and nearby water and encouraging a “no litter” attitude throughout our coastal watershed.

You can find out more at www. and at

(The writer serves as Assateague Coastkeeper as well as executive director of the Assateague Coastal Trust.)