E.P.A. Updates a Decades-Old Water Quality Standard

Summer bathers on the Coney Island beach. James Estrin/The New York Times Summer bathers on the Coney Island beach.
Green: Politics

Last week the  Environmental Protection Agency issued a new set of water quality guidelines for monitoring bacterial outbreaks in inland and coastal waters used frequently by recreational swimmers. The standard was last updated in 1986. The move was prompted by a federal court order and a requirement of the Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act of 2000.
But the E.P.A. can’t enforce the new standard. It’s up to individual states to decide whether to use the guidelines.
Ellen Gilinsky, senior policy adviser from the agency’s Office of Water, said the E.P.A. hoped that states would use “this guidance to strengthen their water quality standards, enhance efforts to prevent contamination of recreational waters, monitor recreational waters more frequently and provide warnings more quickly.”
Although some states are likely to be slow or reluctant to adopt the changes, Gregory O’Mullan, a professor of microbiology at Queens College in Flushing, said the real value of the guidelines was that they established a higher standard at a time when water quality — especially after Hurricane Sandy — was on people’s minds.

With developers favoring riverfront and seafront construction in recent decades, people have become increasingly accustomed to living along or using waterways and forming a personal connection to them. At the same time, Hurricane Sandy underlined the perils of proximity, from the destruction of buildings to sewage treatment plant overflows.
“There’s growing appreciation that what happened with Sandy may not be an isolated event,” Mr. O’Mullan said. “What is in our waterways is not always something that remains at arm’s length.”
The new guidelines, based on several health studies, suggest that a wider array of illnesses than previously recognized are caused by the presence of bacteria like E.coli in coastal and inland waters.
One important new recommendation calls for more frequent testing, suggesting that samples be collected at least weekly and that the results be evaluated within 30 days.The move, Mr. O’Mullan said, is expected to help officials pinpoint and respond more rapidly to events like sewage overflows that sully the waters where people swim.
The E.P.A. has also approved a new DNA-based method for water monitoring that is faster than the older method, which takes a full day to process. “It’s particularly frustrating to tell people, ‘Well, we can tell you what the water was like yesterday, but not today,’ ” Mr. O’Mullan said.
The agency’s decision to provide two thresholds for measurements of water quality — a more moderate one that allows for higher concentrations of bacteria in the water, and a stricter marker that deems a more limited concentration of water-borne bacteria acceptable — has drawn criticism from environmental organizations. The groups argue that the two thresholds will encourage states to opt for the less stringent one.
Ms.Gilinsky said that over all, the new criteria are intended “to strengthen public health protections for beachgoers while giving states the flexibility to use the science-based standards and methods that best suit their needs and resources.” But some groups say this allows for too much flexibility.
Water quality has been at the center of a controversy in Florida, where nitrogen and phosphorus from failed septic tanks, manure or fertilizer runoff have caused an explosion of algal blooms in rivers. The resulting green sludge is a potential threat to public health and local economies. Environmentalists sued the E.P.A., arguing that it should have imposed more stringent regulations on the state because of its mammoth algae problem.
In a settlement, the agency agreed to impose stricter enforcement and opened negotiations with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection on what rules should be applied. On Friday, the E.P.A. proposed enforcement of a combination of state and federal rules.
While Mr. O’Mullan said such battles show there is “room for a larger step” in cleaning up water pollution, he views the new standard with some optimism. “I would hope that states would choose to be more protective than less,” he said.
But even if they opt for the more lenient approach, he said, the guidelines will encourage awareness and debate. “When a state chooses to select values that are less stringent than these guidelines, they are going to have to make a strong argument for it and explain it to the people who are being protected,” he said.
There are other justifications for applying a tougher standard. Investment in the infrastructure to treat wastewater has led to improvements in water quality that have in turn given people more confidence to take to the waterways, Mr. O’Mullan noted.
As a result, he said, “people are coming into contact with the water in places where they wouldn’t have 20 years ago, and that makes updating of these standards absolutely critical.”
An earlier version of this post misstated the frequency of testing recommended by the E.P.A. in its proposed water-quality standard. It suggests that samples be collected at least weekly, not every 30 days.

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