Testing the waters: Quality of beaches, bays monitored all summer long

By Olivia Montes
Posted 5/29/21

As Memorial Day weekend and the unofficial start to summer approach, several area environmental groups in Delaware and Maryland are keeping their eyes on the water.

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Testing the waters: Quality of beaches, bays monitored all summer long


As Memorial Day weekend and the unofficial start to summer approach, several area environmental groups in Delaware and Maryland are keeping their eyes on the water.

In the First State, groups such as the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control and the University of Delaware’s Citizen Monitoring Program began inspecting the quality of water in both coastal and inland bodies prior to the start of beach season.

DNREC will sample and monitor water quality at select Delaware beaches through the third week of September, with locations at Bethany Beach, Cape Henlopen State Park, Swedes Street at Dewey Beach, Rehoboth Avenue in Rehoboth Beach and in Fenwick Island. These beaches will be monitored twice a week, generally on Monday and Wednesday mornings, and all Delaware beaches will be monitored from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

Additionally, in collaboration with DNREC, the Citizen Monitoring Program has volunteers collect and observe the quality of water at assigned sites in Delaware’s Inland Bay areas and Broadkill River watersheds from May to September, processing samples weekly in preparation for pickup by the program twice each month.

According to the program’s coordinator, Ed Whereat, once samples have been collected by staff, they inspect each specimen for possible variations in “nutrients, chlorophyll, total suspended solids, total enterococcus bacteria and harmful algae” at UD’s Lewes campus lab.

In Maryland, the Assateague Coastal Trust, an affiliate of the Chesapeake regional chapter of the Waterkeeper Alliance, and the Assateague Coastkeeper will begin monitoring the quality of water in that state’s coastal bays.

According to an ACT statement by watershed specialist Billy R. Weiland, samples across the Maryland coastal bays region will be collected and under observation for any possible fluctuations regarding levels of “pH, dissolved oxygen, and visibility” within each example and will be “pulled, processed, and analyzed for the presence of enterococci.”

Locations that will be monitored include the Assawoman Bay, the Isle of Wight, the St. Martin River, Herring and Turville creeks and, as of this year, the Ocean City Inlet. The ACT Monitoring Program 2021 will be collecting samples and data through Sept. 9 and released its first results of the season Friday. Visitors will be able to access data through online platforms, such as the app Swim Guide, which is also available for Delaware waterways.

Through consistently inspecting and reporting changing conditions of public swimming areas prior to and throughout the summer, as well as updating visitors of any potential changes, this process is not only designed to protect swimmers, but, as vice chair of the Delaware chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, Brian Moran, explained, it also helps preserve the livelihood of the surrounding ecosystems.

“The quality of the water is very important. It’s not only because Delaware has a tourism-driven industry, especially in southern Delaware, ... (but) because we want people to generally be safe and enjoy the water. Anything that comes out of the water, (like) marine life itself, we want to keep all that safe,” Mr. Moran said. “It’s not only having people enjoy ... and allow for the financial industries to thrive, but really the bottom line is having everyone be safe and healthy, and that includes both human life and marine life.”

For Delaware’s Inland Bays, detecting and reporting changes in water quality is just as important, as it not only allows visitors to make informed decisions about where they choose to swim and the nearby wildlife, but also that of others.

“For microbial quality, it’s to inform the public about the swimming safety of the waters they might consider using, so they can make informed decisions about their health and the health of their families,” said Chris Bason, executive director of the Delaware Center for the Inland Bays. “Weigh the risk: If you’ve got an infant with you or you’ve got an elderly person, you take more precautions.”

While Delaware beaches have historically been safe for visitors to wade in, consistently monitoring the water quality throughout the summer will allow the state to prepare for and alert visitors of any dangerous fluctuations.

According to the Waterkeeper Alliance website, the Chesapeake region, comprised of four states and Washington, D.C., claiming 45,000 square miles of waterways and cited as the largest delta in North America, continues to face significant environmental threats, including “fracked gas pipelines, agricultural runoff, and polluted stormwater runoff.”

Consistent monitoring will allow visitors of both Delaware and Maryland beaches and other public swimming areas to be aware of any possible changes that put their health and safety in danger, such as fluctuating bacteria levels or signs of environmental damage lurking above and under the water’s surface.

Visitors are also advised to be aware before going on their vacations. This includes, according to Mr. Moran, being on the lookout for incoming severe storms — before, during and after they have passed.

“A heavy summer thunderstorm ... can easily overrun some of those drainage systems and cause runoff to go into the water system, ... (including) from septic systems, wastewater-treatment plants and road runoff,” Mr. Moran said. “You would want to pay attention to any alerts of water quality (to) make sure the quality of water is safe.”

He also suggests that visitors planning on spending valuable time at the beach catch local news updates to make sure the water is safe for all to swim in.

For the Inland Bays areas, Mr. Bason advises that, while the microbial quality of open waters in those creeks and estuaries is generally safe to swim in, patrons should keep a close eye out as they travel farther upriver, as well as who they’re swimming with.

“When you start to get upstream, like up in the Indian River, up any of the tributaries like Pepper Creek or Whites Creek or just an area that doesn’t flush as well, that’s probably when it’s a good idea to check, in general, what the water quality is before going swimming,” he said.

Mr. Bason also advised that swimmers can lower their chances of contracting disease from the water by limiting the amount of time they go underwater and by not ingesting it, as well as being careful of other notable risks on the body, such as open cuts or other injuries, which can become infected with harmful bacteria if exposed.

For more information regarding the water quality of Delaware beaches, visit here. To volunteer to monitor water quality, visit the Citizen Monitoring Program website.