Concerns have grown for years about beachgoers' exposure to human and animal waste and other bacteria, and the EPA under pressure from a court settlement finalizes new safeguards.
The Environmental Protection Agency on Monday finalized its first new recreational water quality criteria in a quarter century, complying with a court settlement from four years ago.
The criteria, issued under the Clean Water Act, set the stage for states to write plans that protect the public from exposure to human and animal waste and other bacteria at beaches and other recreational locations.
EPA also included in its first update of the rules since 1986 rapid testing methods that are not technically part of the criteria, but suggest to states ways to quickly determine whether to close heavily-used beaches.
"The criteria provide states and communities with the most up-to-date science and information that they can use to determine whether water quality is safe for the public and when to issue an advisory or a beach closure," EPA said.
EPA was ordered under amendments to the Clean Air Act adopted in 2000, called the BEACH Act, to update criteria for evaluating the impact of bacteria exposure on human health.
EPA said the new criteria are based in part on studies that show links between gastrointestinal illnesses and fecal contamination and can be applied to both fresh and sea water.
It was sued in 2006 by environmental groups for not moving forward. EPA in 2008 reached a settlement with Los Angeles County, the National Association of Clean Water Agencies and the Natural Resources Defense Council that led to the criteria issued Monday.
The next step will be for states to incorporate the criteria into their Clean Water Act plans for approval by EPA, said Chris Hornback, senior director of regulatory affairs at the National Association of Clean Water Agencies. The association represents large water treatment and storm-water treatment systems.
He said EPA left the rapid testing methods up to states to incorporate as needed, but did so in a way that allows them to be targeted to beaches with large numbers of visitors. Less expensive testing that takes days, instead of hours, will still be an option for states without such locations.
"They did a pretty good job of striking the right balance in the final criteria recommendations," Hornback said.