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  • As part of its water monitoring program, the Department of Health collects samples from 80 beaches across Anne Arundel County and measures the bacteria counts to determine whether the water is safe for swimming.
    As part of its water monitoring program, the Department of Health collects samples from 80 beaches across Anne Arundel County and measures the bacteria counts to determine whether the water is safe for swimming.
  • As part of its water monitoring program, the Department of Health collects samples from 80 beaches across Anne Arundel County and measures the bacteria counts to determine whether the water is safe for swimming.
    As part of its water monitoring program, the Department of Health collects samples from 80 beaches across Anne Arundel County and measures the bacteria counts to determine whether the water is safe for swimming.

Is It Safe To Swim?

Dylan Roche
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May 17, 2017

Picture somebody who advocates safe swimming and helps ensure protection for people who go in the water for recreational use. In most cases, it’s easy to think of a lifeguard, armed with a whistle and ring buoy, standing at the ready to help someone in trouble.

But what about a scientist? In Anne Arundel County, where 534 miles of shoreline offer plenty of natural water bodies for recreational use, a scientist plays just as active a role in keeping swimmers safe as a lifeguard does.

“Natural water bodies are always going to have bacteria present in them,” said Sally Levine, recreational water specialist for the Anne Arundel County Department of Health, which monitors local waterways for bacteria levels throughout the summer. “Not always is the pathogen going to be harmful, but there is always a risk associated with swimming in a natural body of water, which is why it’s important to follow the trends.”

The Department of Health’s water quality program, which annually begins Memorial Day weekend and runs through Labor Day weekend, prioritizes public beaches, community beaches and camp beaches based on the amount of swimming traffic each has and the importance of measuring the bacteria levels. A high-priority beach, such as Camp Whippoorwill on the Magothy River, is tested weekly, whereas a medium-priority beach would be sampled biweekly and a low-priority beach would be sampled monthly.

The samples are tested for enterococci, bacteria that come from the intestines of warm-blooded animals and are associated with fecal contamination. The bacteria counts are then posted at www.aahealth.org/programs/env-hlth/rec-water/reports every month. “The goal of the program is to reduce the risk and help prevent any water-related illnesses,” Levine summarized.

Although the program hasn’t commenced for the 2017 season just yet, the numbers from 2016 and 2015 consistently reflect safe swimming conditions. In the case of Camp Whippoorwill, the bacteria count never exceeded 4 MPN (most probable number per 100 milliliters of the sample) in 2016, far below the 104 MPN level of acceptability set by the EPA.

Stormwater from heavy rains will bring the numbers up, but rarely has Anne Arundel County seen unsafe bacteria levels. In 2016, for example, Elizabeth’s Landing on Stoney Creek, a medium-priority beach sampled biweekly, reached a peak of 21 MPN in early July but returned to 1 MPN by Labor Day. Sunset Beach, also on Stoney Creek, hit 31 MPN after a heavy rainfall in later June, but also returned to 1 by Labor Day. Upper Magothy Beach, a low-priority beach sampled monthly, went up to 39 MPN in early July.

None of these numbers, however, is cause for concern. “We do not get concerned until the result is 104 or higher,” she said. “Even a result at 101 indicates that it meets the EPA standard for swimming.”

Under specific circumstances, DOH will post advisories against swimming. “Should we have an exceedance, we immediately go out and resample because we know we have a history of good results,” said Levine. “Should we have a second exceedance, the beach goes under an advisory.” She emphasized that all beaches are under a 48-hour advisory following rainfall of a half-inch or more.

As Anne Arundel County continues to make the water accessible for more of its citizens, quality of the water becomes increasingly important. The county’s first public swimming beach opened at Fort Smallwood Park in 2016, and residents haven’t hesitated to enjoy the chance to go in the water. “At Fort Smallwood, it’s been very well received and very popular,” said Colleen Joseph, chief of marketing for Anne Arundel County Recreation and Parks.

She explained that Recreation and Parks looks to the Department of Health for updates on bacteria, but in some cases, the parks don’t even wait. “If the Health Department has a concern due to the bacteria count … then they alert the Department of Recreation and Parks, and we post the beaches as closed if we have not already done so,” she said. “After downpours, we don’t wait for water testing results to come in. We are proactive.”

In addition to staying informed on the bacteria counts at their favorite swimming holes and avoiding the water after rainfall, residents should remember not to go in the water with open cuts or sores or if they have a compromised immune system, and everyone should shower with warm, soapy water after swimming. More information on enterococci, water monitoring and healthy swimming tips can be found at www.aahealth.org.

“We do put our sample data up every Friday on our website,” Levine said. “You can follow the water quality from week to week to decide whether you want to go to recreate in the waterways.”

 

SIDEBAR: Healthy Beach Habits

·         Be sure to avoid swimming near storm drains along the beach and within 48 hours of a heavy rain event.

·         Try not to swallow beach water.

·         Shower or bathe after swimming.

·         Dogs may not be allowed at some beaches. Please check before you go. If you bring a pet to the beach, dispose of its waste properly.

·         You should avoid swimming if you feel ill or have open cuts or sores. If water contact can’t be avoided, cover your open cut or sore with waterproof bandages.

·         If they are available, use diaper-changing stations in restroom facilities, or change diapers away from the water’s edge.

·         Remember to properly dispose of used diapers.

·         Wash your hands with soap and warm water after using the bathroom or changing diapers.

·         Please take all trash with you offsite in a bag.

·         Volunteer in local beach cleanup efforts.

·         Remember not to feed seagulls or other wildlife.

·         When boating, you should use an approved marina pump-out station for boat waste disposal.

·         If you see any unsafe or unhealthy conditions, be sure to report them to a lifeguard or beach manager.


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