Wed., February 15, 2012 4:00pm (EST)

Swimmers Won't Notice Beach Water Changes
By Orlando Montoya
Updated: 2 years ago

SAVANNAH, Ga.  —  
The beach at St. Simons Island is pictured in the busy summer season.  The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sets national standards for recreational beach water quality, but it's up to states to come up with their own beach-by-beach criteria and either close beaches or issue swim warnings when appropriate. (photo Orlando Montoya)
The beach at St. Simons Island is pictured in the busy summer season. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sets national standards for recreational beach water quality, but it's up to states to come up with their own beach-by-beach criteria and either close beaches or issue swim warnings when appropriate. (photo Orlando Montoya)
Federal environmental officials are proposing new beach water quality standards.

But swimmers at Georgia's beaches are unlikely to notice any changes.

Under the proposal, state officials would continue monitoring beaches like Tybee, St. Simons and Jekyll Islands for gastrointestinal illness.

But triggers for closing beaches or issuing swim warnings would stay the same.

And that's a disappointment for some environmental groups.

Steve Fleischli of the Natural Resources Defense Council says, the Environmental Protection Agency should expand definitions for illness.

"A day at the beach shouldn't make you sick," Fleischli says. "Unfortunately, EPA recognizes that in the context of the worst illnesses, like diarrhea with fever, but doesn't recognize that point when it comes to just diarrhea and vomiting, without the fever."

The proposal would allow states to set stricter standards with more tests.

But Fleischli says, cash-strapped states would be unlikely to enact them.

"The EPA says, 'Well, we're protecting people from diarrhea with fever as opposed to just diarrhea,'" Fleischli says. "And my point to EPA is, if I had to choose between diarrhea with fever and just diarrhea alone, I would choose neither."

EPA officials say, the proposed standards would protect 99% of swimmers from gastrointestinal illnesses with fever.

A statement provided to GPB in response to written questions stresses that states like Georgia will continue to be responsible for protecting swimmers and notifying them when water quality is unsafe.

"Under the Clean Water Act, states may adopt site-specific criteria if they are based on scientifically sound methods and are protective of the designated use," the statement reads. "Water quality criteria recommendations are intended as guidance to states, authorized tribes and territories in establishing new or revised water quality standards."

The agency is taking public comments on the proposal through next week.