America's Cleanest Vacation Beaches — And The Dirtiest Ones, Too

Crystal clear, clean water. That is what every beach vacationer wants when they jump on a surf- or paddle board, dive into the sea for a swim, or just splash out until the water laps around their knees. What they don't want is to come out of the water sick with some stomach bug.

Yet 10% of the water samples taken from some 3,500 beaches around the U.S. coast that are regularly monitored failed last year to meet the Environmental Protection Agency's standard for uncontaminated swimming water, putting beachgoers at risk of gastroenteritis. Alaska, Mississippi, Maine, and Louisiana had the highest percentage of samples failing to pass muster, along with Ohio. This is not purely a coastal phenomenon; regionally, the Great Lakes are the worst offenders when it comes to water quality.[slideshow:1030]

The good news is that water pollution at some of America's most popular beaches is not getting any worse. Adjusting for a toughening of the EPA's standard last year, the same percentage of water samples failed to make the grade as was the case under laxer measures used in 2012 and earlier.

The bad news is that, as critics point out, even the tougher new standards deem it acceptable for 36 of every 1,000 beachgoers to fall ill with gastroenteritis. Symptoms include vomiting, nausea, and stomachache. We'll spare you any more detail, but you get the idea.

As well as gastroenteritis, swimmers in contaminated waters are at risk of skin rashes, pinkeye, respiratory infections, meningitis, and hepatitis. Children are especially vulnerable. They tend to submerge their heads more often than adults and are more likely to swallow water when swimming.

So where should you be heading for? Which of America's beaches have the cleanest water?[slideshow:1031]

We have used an analysis of the results of those water samples by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an international non-profit environmental organization, to assemble a list of the 35 beaches around the country that have consistently shown themselves to have the cleanest water. They are to be found in 14 states — Alabama, California, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Maryland, North Carolina, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Virginia, and Washington. In every year since 2009, no more than 2% of their water samples have failed to meet the public-health benchmark. 

The same data set informed the list of 17 beaches that have had at least a quarter of their water samples fail that test each year over the same period. These are to be found in eight states — California, Indiana, Massachusetts, Maine, New Jersey, New York, Ohio and Wisconsin. It should be noted that one of those beaches and states, the beach to the east of Malibu Pier in California, wouldn't have made the list if the standard hadn't been toughened in 2013.

A minimum of 15 samples needed to have been taken every year to qualify for both lists.

Chronically high counts of a particular bacterium, enterococcus, which is what the water-quality tests measure, usually indicate that the waters off a beach are contaminated with human or animal waste. Stormwater runoffs and sewage overflows are the most common way it gets there, though rainfall levels, wind speeds and direction, tides, wave height, and currents will determine how it is distributed.

Cutting the problem off at the source is the way it needs to be tackled to better protect beachgoers health. This infographic produced by the NRDC shows ways that could be done.

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