Americans love the beach. We love our rivers, streams and lakes. We love to surf, swim, play and paddle in our local waterways. But these pursuits and passions require clean water, free of pollution that could make us or our children sick.

Risks and symptoms

Unfortunately, wastewater from old and failing sewage infrastructure, cesspools, septic systems and sewers all too often contaminate our recreational waters. Urban and agricultural runoff also carries chemicals, fertilizers, dust, oil and other pollutants into our surface waters and ultimately the ocean. Pathogens in human and animal waste pose a serious public health risk in recreational waters.

Common symptoms that can develop from swimming or playing in water polluted by septic or sewage discharges include nausea and diarrhea, eye and ear infections, flu-like symptoms, rashes and more serious skin infections.

“There is growing awareness of the value that citizen science and volunteer-generated data provides...”

Improving vigilance

Since the water crisis in Flint, MI, we all know that we can’t take for granted that the water we are drinking and swimming in is safe, and a greater partnership between government and local communities is needed to ensure clean water for all. State and local health agencies are largely responsible for monitoring water quality at official swim areas during the traditional summer season and notifying the public if bacteria levels exceed health standards. This leaves many beaches, surf breaks, and swimming holes unprotected for most of the year.

The efforts of citizen science groups are helping to fill the gaps of agency programs and working to ensure that the public has the information they need to know where it is safe to swim. There is growing awareness of the value that citizen science and volunteer-generated data provides for improved public health protection and management decisions. By working together, government officials and community members can better protect clean water and the recreational opportunities that we all treasure.