EPA Launches New Recreational Water Standards

December 12, 2012

On November 26, the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) finally released its 2012 Recreational Water Quality Criteria (RWQC).  These criteria for recreational water use were last issued in 1986.  In 2000, the BEACH act directed EPA to conduct more studies associating bacteria and pathogens with human health, and then to publish new criteria for bacteria indicators that would better protect public health.

The 2012 RWQC includes two different bacterial indicators that could show fecal contamination in recreational waters, both E. coli and enterococci. These indicators are designed to protect “primary” contact, which includes bathing, surfing, and other uses where there is likely body contact and immersion.  The criteria do not address “secondary contact” or recreational standards for rivers and other waterways that are used recreationally by paddlers, fishermen, children playing, etc.  This is concerning, and raises questions about when and how recreational water quality will be addressed for rivers and other waterways that are not used currently for swimming. 

The criteria gives guidance to States, Tribes, and other entities for setting mean levels of acceptable bacteria, a maximum threshold level for safety, and monthly guidelines to better protect our beaches and other recreational waters. The criteria also allow for rapid testing methods that enable “early-alerts” of recreational water contamination, allow for modelling and other tools (such as DNA testing) that better predict water quality problems.  While Milwaukee Riverkeeper believes these standards are a significant improvement, the recommended criteria still allow for an estimated illness rate of 32 or 36 people getting sick per 1,000 recreational users (depending on which criteria are selected by States).