On Wednesday, July 22, 2020, the environmental advocacy organization Save the Harbor/Save the Bay released their annual Metropolitan Beaches Water Quality Report Card, using data from the 2019 beach season.
Here is a snapshot of the results.
In 2019, weekly water quality testing at Boston’s regional beaches began on May 23. Supplemental daily testing of Constitution Beach, King’s Beach, Malibu Beach, Tenean Beach, and Wollaston Beach began on June 13. Testing concluded on September 1.
These scores reflect the percent of samples that complied with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health’s single sample limit for bacteria which is the most straightforward way of evaluating beach water quality and potential impacts on human health.
In 2019, the overall water quality safety rating for Boston Harbor’s regional beaches owned by the Commonwealth and managed by the Department of Conservation and Recreation was 88%, a decline from the previous year’s score of 94%.
Changes in the intensity and frequency of summer storms often explain the variations we see on our beaches from year to year. These seasonal variations are why Save the Harbor/Save the Bay is reluctant to draw conclusions from a single year’s sampling results, preferring to rely on the multi-year average we have included in this report.
2019 was one of the wettest years on record for Massachusetts, part of the wettest 12-month stretch in the state’s 124 years of record keeping. Some summer storms dropped a month’s worth of rain in just a few hours. It was a summer of extremes, with July also being the hottest one on record, making beach accessibility even more critical to the region’s residents.
In 2019, four of the region’s 15 public beaches (Carson Beach, M Street Beach, City Point Beach and Pleasure Bay, all in South Boston) achieved a perfect score of 100%, making them the cleanest urban beaches in the nation
Three area beaches (Nahant Beach, Constitution Beach in East Boston, and Nantasket Beach in Hull) scored between 90% and 97%. Four area beaches (Short Beach in Revere and Winthrop, Revere Beach in Revere, Wollaston Beach in Quincy, and Malibu Beach in Dorchester) scored between 83% and 88%, while four area beaches (Savin Hill Beach in Dorchester, Winthrop Beach in Winthrop, King’s Beach in Lynn and Swampscott, and Tenean Beach in Dorchester) scored less than 80% in 2019.
One critical weakness of our beach posting and flagging program, where bacteria testing triggers advisories, is that postings are always a day late because beach managers must wait 24 to 36 hours after a sample is collected to obtain test results. Beach water quality may have already changed significantly during this period, and the prior day’s test does not necessarily reflect current conditions.
In 2019, the Department of Public Health made changes to the beach posting protocols, which resulted in 39 additional days when area beaches were incorrectly flagged as unsafe for swimming, including over the 4th of July weekend. While we recognize the importance of protecting public health, the current system is severely flawed and needs to be improved.
Though Save the Harbor/Save the Bay had hoped to resolve this situation before the start of the 2020 beach season, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced public agencies, advocates and other stakeholders to - rightly - direct their attention and resources to other pressing public health concerns.
As we continue to address the impacts of systemic racism that has too often prevented people of color from fully enjoying the benefits of our shared $5 billion investment in clean water, it is important to note that access to these urban beaches is particularly important to the region’s low-income and BIPOC residents.
Later this year, and early next, Save the Harbor/Save the Bay will host three forums and a conference on the future of our public beaches, to help our community partners in waterfront neighborhoods and beachfront communities address systemic racism, sea level rise, and the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, all of which threaten public health and safety.
Working with our policy partners at the MWRA, MADEP and DCR, we will also convene a public meeting of our Beaches Science Advisory Committee, to create a shared understanding and consensus among stakeholders and regulators on how to best address the inadequate and inaccurate posting protocols, to both protect public health and preserve public access to clean water.
In the interim, instead of simply relying on postings and flags, we urge beach goers to also rely on common sense and the multi-year average we have included in this report to decide when and where it is safe to swim. And, when you are on the beach, be sure to wear a mask and observe the guidance for social distancing, to protect yourself and your community from COVID-19.
To learn more about the methodology on which it's based, visit our website at www.savetheharbor.org/reportcard