Bay Crossings Article

How Healthy is Summertime on the Bay?

By 
Sejal Choksi
From the July 2008 edition of Bay Crossings

Welcome to summer in the Bay Area: the fog is rolling, the Bay is crowded with windsurfers, swimmers and sailors, visitors fill tour boats and residents are flocking to shoreline parks and beaches for picnics and playtime. Summertime gives us all a chance enjoy recreation on or near the Bay. At this time of year, I am often asked, “Is it safe to play in the Bay?”  And my response is always, “Yes – sometimes.”

Baykeeper works to protect the Bay from toxics, sewage and stormwater runoff. But how do these pollutants affect our enjoyment of the Bay? There are a few things all Bay Area residents should know about what’s in our local waterways before heading out for summer fun around the Bay.

The main health concern with recreating in the Bay is the level of bacteria in the water. High concentrations of bacteria make water unsafe for swimmers, surfers and boaters, as well as those enjoying the surf on beaches and shorelines. Research has shown that swimming in waters with high concentrations of bacteria can cause symptoms including diarrhea, fever, sore throat, skin problems and respiratory infections. Bacteria in the Bay comes from human or animal waste that gets into our waters through overflowing sewer systems, from overloaded storm drains and from areas where pets or wild animals congregate. Of particular concern are beaches where storm drains dump contaminated water from illegal sewer connections and from dirty streets and parking lots – studies have shown that water quality is worse at beaches that receive this stormwater runoff, and that the risk of illness is greater for people who swim in water directly in front of storm drains.

In order to check for unsafe levels of bacteria in Bay waters, local departments of public or environmental health routinely monitor more than seventy-five beaches and shorelines around the Bay. Fortunately, in 2007, Bay Area beaches and shorelines had a good record of being safe to swim during summer months. If monitoring results show dangerous levels of bacteria, regulatory agencies are required to close beaches and post notices alerting the public to the health risks of coming into contact with the water. Check with your local health department for any beach closures or water quality alerts if you plan on swimming or coming into contact with the water. Another helpful resource is www.earth911.org, where you can check the status of water quality at local beaches and shorelines. In general, choose a location away from storm drains and wait at least three days after it has rained before getting into the water.

Trash in our waterways can also interfere with our enjoyment of recreational areas and pose unsafe conditions. Plastic bags, food and beverage containers and paper waste litter our creeks and shorelines. Aside from marring the beauty of a creek, beach or park, trash can harbor bacteria, destroy wildlife habitat and harm animals that eat the trash or become entangled in it.

The Bay and its waters belong to everyone, so we all share the responsibility to help keep them clean and usable. Baykeeper is working to ensure that our local governments are doing everything possible to protect the Bay from pollution, and you can support our work by making a donation at www.baykeeper.org. There are also a few simple things you can do to help keep the Bay clean and safe. When you’re enjoying the Bay this summer, remember to follow these tips:

  • When you go to the beach or visit a creek, make sure you dispose of your trash properly. Bring an extra bag with you and pick up trash that may pose a hazard to wildlife and pollute waterways.
  • Clean up after your pet – don’t let your pet’s waste make it into our waters.
  • If you’re boating on the Bay, make sure you follow proper disposal tips when dealing with the waste or trash you create. (See Baykeeper’s Clean Boating tips at www.baykeeper.org for suggestions.)

Most important of all – have fun!  Summertime is a great opportunity to appreciate the Bay and this wonderful place we call home.