Beach Closures, Bacteria, and Stormwater Pollution


If you asked Rhode Islanders to respond to the word “summer,” most would say “beach.” That one question is an excellent way to discover who you want to be friends with, and who you’ll wave at from a distance before tutting about how boring (and pale) they are.

In “The Ocean State,” the beach is integral to our lives in the summer. We fight the weekend crowds in Westerly, Saunderstown, and Newport to dig our feet in the sand, pick up a couple of shells, and get that sassy and crunchy beach hair

However, one of these towns is not like the others. For most ocean beaches in Rhode Island, there is one day per summer where the Rhode Island Health Department “recommends the closure of” the beach due to “high bacteria count.” I will pause to allow the requisite shiver, terrifying thoughts of swimming in such water, and all other manner of freaking out.

But on Aquidneck Island, beaches face closures due to high bacteria, on average, more than three days every year. Since Memorial Day 2003, the Atlantic Beach Club alone has had to close 110 days during summer beach season. Easton’s Beach has closed 48 times. The saddest thing about all these beach closures isn’t just the disappointed kids who can’t build their sandcastles on those days – it’s that all of these closures are human caused. Which means they are also entirely preventable.

If you’ll allow me a moment to return to my former life as a science nerd, let’s take a gander at the water cycle. In this picture (produced by the US Geological Survey), you can see that one of the biggest feeders of water from land to the sea is surface runoff. Much of surface runoff is stormwater.

Watercyclesummary

Now here’s the interesting thing: Most beach closures occur in the days following a heavy rain. This is not simple correlation. This is causation. It is well documented in beaches around the world that pollution in nearby bodies of water increases following storms. This is especially true of locations that have a large amount of impermeable surfaces – like paved roads and parking lots – that water cannot filter through, but instead gushes off. In a state like Rhode Island, where twelve percent of our land is paved, you can begin to see the connection between big rain storms and all of those beach closures. In June 2015, for example, every closure was immediately preceded by a day with rain. The same thing applies for the vast majority of the closures in the past.

Aquidneck Island in particular has both a lot of paved surfaces and a lot of coastline and interior water. More than 30% of the Bailey’s Brook watershed is made up of impervious surface. When we have large amounts of rain, the stormwater in Middletown will run from the watershed into Bailey’s Brook, which will lead into North Easton Pond, then South Easton Pond, then finally into the Atlantic Ocean, imbuing local beaches with “high bacteria counts.”

So how can we save beach days? Well, unsurprisingly, it does come down to paperwork. Currently, most of Middletown’s privately owned stormwater dischargers – industrial parks, office parks, and shopping centers, for example – are not effectively regulated by EPA. The best way to reduce the stormwater pollution is to make them either pay for their pollution, or to control the pollution they generate.

That is what CLF is attempting to make EPA do now through our recently filed lawsuit. If EPA was to regulate all stormwater dischargers effectively, it would reduce the stress on town resources to clean waters made dirty by upstream polluters – and lead to more of those ideal beach days that we Rhode Islanders look forward to all year.

Arianna Baker is a rising second-year law student at Roger Williams University School of Law in Bristol, RI. A resident of Newport, Arianna is working with CLF Rhode Island on our litigation against the Central Landfill and regional ocean planning issues this summer.

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