Monday, May 19, 2014

Fecal Matters: How we’re protecting your summer beach experience

Len Adams and Janice Jensen of Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department.
By Sandy Howard, communication manager, Environmental Assessment Program

The next time you get your feet wet at any of our state’s popular saltwater beaches, you might want to know that there are people working behind-the-scenes to keep the water healthy for you and your friends and family.

It’s a behind-the-scenes, little-known service we provide.

We think it’s an important story to tell.

During the past year, the Washington state BEACHProgram and its local partner, the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, discovered a significant fecal bacteria problem in Puget Sound’s Marine Park near the Les Davis Pier on the Ruston Way waterfront.

Why it matters

This is a big deal for you because if you come in contact with fecal-contaminated waters, you can get a bad stomach ache called gastroenteritis. You could also get skin rashes, upper respiratory infections, or other illnesses. Children and the elderly may be more vulnerable to waterborne illnesses.

Did you know?

The state’s BEACH Program this summer is testing 58 of the state’s most popular saltwater beaches for bacteria to help people avoid getting sick from playing in the water.

The federally funded, state-run BEACH (Beach Environmental Assessment, Communication and Health) Program notifies the public when beaches are a health risk and educates people about ways to avoid getting sick from playing in saltwater.

BEACH enlists help from many partners, mostly local health departments, to collect water samples and get them laboratory tested.

When BEACH finds bacteria problems, BEACH not only protects the public by notifying them about closures, but it works with local jurisdictions to clean up the area.

A real example

Just about a year ago, on May 24, 2013, through BEACH, the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department issued a no-contact advisory for the waters at Cummings Park and Marine Park along Ruston Way in Tacoma due to high bacteria counts.

The public was warned to make no contact with water until further notice.This was a big deal. The waters here are popular for scuba diving and paddle boarding.

To its credit, the city of Tacoma, in coordination with the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, got busy and quickly found the source of the problem. It turned out that there was a blocked sewage pipe that was serving several homes located on the hillside above Marine Park.

“We work very hard to protect water quality,” said Tacoma Environmental Services Director Mike Slevin. “Once alerted we were able to respond and fix issues and concerns very quickly.”

The clogged pipe had been clogged for some time. By the time the sewage sleuthing ended, the city identified a large area of land that needed to be cleaned up, including land owned and operated by a railroad company.

Debby Sargeant, who runs the BEACH Program, said: “The sewage overflow was going into a ditch line alongside the railroad tracks.”

Thankfully, BEACH and their local partners found the problem.

In early October 2013, the city of Tacoma cleaned the sewage spill by removing soils.

It was costly, but the health department received $5,600 in National Estuary Program (NEP) funds to help pay for its routine sampling at Ruston, as well investigation and coordination work regarding the sewage overflow. The funding also helped pay for other community outreach efforts.

The beach is open to the public and the Health Department has removed the advisory signs.

All is well now, so we can play once again in these waters.

You can thank your government – it stepped in to protect us.

Learn more

You can follow the latest beach closure at Ecology’s Twitter handle @ecologyWA

Sign up to receive BEACH’s email alerts at: or follow our blog series,“Fecal Matters,” which contains the latest information about saltwater beach closures and openings.

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