New state testing plan could mean fewer closed Island beaches

New state health regulations could mean fewer beach closings on Martha's Vineyard this summer. — File photo by Ralph Stewart

The Massachusetts Public Health Council unanimously approved less stringent water quality testing procedures for beaches on Wednesday. The rule change could result in fewer Martha’s Vineyard beaches being closed for fewer days than in recent summers. Under the new rules, with some exceptions, beaches would be closed to swimming only if the water fails to meet the state’s single sample water quality standards on two consecutive days, as opposed to the past standard of one day.

Over the past several summers, local board of health officials were required to close several popular Island beaches as a result of only one failed sample. The water quality samples have puzzled and frustrated local town officials and health agents, who have had to post “no swimming” signs, sometimes on the hottest days of the year.

For example, on July 7, 2011 West Tisbury closed four heavily used beaches to swimming — Lambert’s Cove Beach on Vineyard Sound, Uncle Seth’s Pond off Lambert’s Cove Road, Long Cove Pond, and Tisbury Great Pond beach, part of The Trustees of Reservations Long Point property on the south shore. The beaches were reopened the next day.

“There has been a lot of concern raised, not just here in Massachusetts, about the lack of an adequate test that provides timely results,” said Suzanne Condon, director of the Bureau of Environmental Health (BEH). “We’ve been looking at the data, and listening to concerns, and wanted to figure out if there was a different way we could approach this to insure we are protecting public health.”

Ms. Condon said the data collected over the past 13 years showed that most water quality test results that failed state standards were attributed to short-term environmental events, like heavy rainfall. She said that only .02 percent of all the beaches tested ever failed two days in a row.

“By the time we learned a beach had a problem, by the time we got that test result, beaches were kept closed when in fact, they should have been open,” she said. “Based on the data we have evaluated, we have a very good picture of which beaches present a public health problem.”

Out with the old

Local health agents routinely test 40 selected sites on Martha’s Vineyard. The agents collect the samples, according to precise guidelines issued by BEH. The guidelines cover the depth, distance from shore, ocean current, and sterile equipment. The guidelines also control the time and temperature of the samples as the bottles are transported to a lab.

The samples are tested for enterococci bacteria. While not usually harmful, enterococci signal the presence of other bacteria that are harmful, and the test is considered the most reliable indicator that the water poses a public health threat, usually from untreated sewage that gets into the water.

Under the old process, it took about 24 hours for the bacteria to grow in a controlled test, before a lab technician can count the bacteria colonies and report any problems to local health agents. If there is an exceedance in the single sample water quality standard, local authorities were required to post “no swimming” signs on the beach. Usually, if there was an exceedance, health agents collected another sample as soon as possible, so that it could be tested. The beaches had to stay closed until a new test showed that the single sample fell below the standard of 104 colony-forming units of enterococci per 100 milliliters (cfu/100ml). The water also had to meet a geometric mean standard before the beaches could reopen. The geometric mean measurement is based on the five most recent test results, and it computes trends in water quality over time. The state requires that beaches be closed to swimming if the geometric mean rises above 35 cfu/100 ml.

In with the new

The new regulations are intended to account for unexpected or unexplained spikes in bacteria that dissipate quickly, as the water circulates. Under the new standards, there are three specific situations which would require closing a beach to swimmers. Most beaches, including almost all of those on Martha’s Vineyard, would fall under the first standard, in which a beach must be closed when two samples, collected on two consecutive days, exceed the single sample standard. A single exceedance, followed by an acceptable standard the following day, would not require closing a beach.

The second standard would address beaches that have fallen short of water quality standards in recent years. If water samples have exceeded standards in two or more of the last four full beach seasons, then only one bad sample would trigger a beach closure.

In the third standard, any water sample that exceeds the standard for the geometric mean, based on the five previous samples, would require a beach to be closed.

Healthy water

Local health agents think the changes may not force as many beach closings, but will not likely lessen their workload, or costs.

“It might help a little bit, with one or two samples here and there, but it won’t help me with the ones that continuously exceed the limits, like Seth’s Pond,” said West Tisbury health agent John Powers. Uncle Seth’s Pond, a freshwater pond in Lambert’s Cove, has failed water quality standards for much of the past three summers, and it remained closed extended periods. Because it has a history of frequent closures, only one water sample that exceeds standards would force closure of the pond to swimmers, under the new regulations.

Mr. Powers said a situation like the town faced when it was required to close Lambert’s Cove Beach is what the new regulations are designed to address.

“Something like Lambert’s Cove, a number of years ago I had one hit and the second one came back clean,” he said. “This is a good thing, it gives us a chance to sample again.”

Last summer, Oak Bluffs was not forced to close any of its ocean beaches, but in previous summers, water quality tests that failed the state standard caused confusion and frustration, when popular town beaches were closed to swimming during the busiest beach days of the summer.

Oak Bluffs health agent Shirley Fauteux said the new regulations are a good thing, but she was a little skeptical that it will save the town money, or reduce the health department’s workload of weekly testing.  “It’s really about the running around,” she said. “That can eat up a whole day. Time is important.”

Makes you sick

Harmful bacteria in the water can cause  gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain. Polluted water can also cause respiratory symptoms such as sore throat, cough, runny nose, and sneezing, eye and ear symptoms including irritation, earache, and itchiness, dermatological symptoms like skin rash and itching, and flu-like symptoms such as fever and chills.

Most of these symptoms are minor most of the time but can occasionally be more serious, especially in sensitive populations, like immuno-compromised people, children, and the elderly.