The Massachusetts Public Health Council unanimously approvedless stringent water quality testing procedures for beaches on Wednesday. The rule change could result in fewer Marthas Vineyard beaches being closed for fewer days than in recent summers. Under the new rules, with some exceptions,beaches would be closed to swimming only if the water fails to meet the states single sample water quality standards on two consecutive days, as opposed to the past standard of one day.
Over the past several summers, local board of health officials were required to close several popular Island beaches as a result of only one failed sample. The water quality samples have puzzled and frustrated local town officials and health agents, who have had to post no swimming signs, sometimes on the hottest days of the year.
For example, on July 7, 2011 West Tisbury closed four heavily used beaches to swimming Lamberts Cove Beach on Vineyard Sound, Uncle Seths Pond off Lamberts Cove Road, Long Cove Pond, and Tisbury Great Pond beach, part of The Trustees of Reservations Long Point property on the south shore. The beaches were reopened the next day.
There has been a lot of concern raised, not just here in Massachusetts, about the lack of an adequate test that provides timely results, said Suzanne Condon, director of the Bureau of Environmental Health (BEH). Weve been looking at the data, and listening to concerns, and wanted to figure out if there was a different way we could approach this to insure we are protecting public health.
Ms. Condon said the data collected over the past 13 years showed that most water quality test results that failed state standards were attributed to short-term environmental events, like heavy rainfall. She said that only .02 percent of all the beaches tested ever failed two days in a row.
By the time we learned a beach had a problem, by the time we got that test result, beaches were kept closed when in fact, they should have been open, she said. Based on the data we have evaluated, we have a very good picture of which beaches present a public health problem.
Out with the old
Local health agents routinely test 40 selected sites on Marthas Vineyard.The agents collect the samples, according to precise guidelines issued by BEH. The guidelines cover the depth, distance from shore, ocean current, and sterile equipment. The guidelines also control the time and temperature of the samples as the bottles are transported to a lab.
The samples are tested for enterococci bacteria. While not usually harmful, enterococci signal the presence of other bacteria that are harmful, and the test is considered the most reliable indicator that the water poses a public health threat, usually from untreated sewage that gets into the water.
Under the old process, it took about 24 hours for the bacteria to grow in a controlled test, before a lab technician can count the bacteria colonies and report any problems to local health agents. If there is an exceedance in the single sample water quality standard, local authorities were required to post no swimming signs on the beach. Usually, if there was an exceedance, health agents collected another sample as soon as possible, so that it could be tested. The beaches had to stay closed until a new test showed that the single sample fell below the standard of 104 colony-forming units of enterococci per 100 milliliters (cfu/100ml). The water also had to meet a geometric mean standard before the beaches could reopen. The geometric mean measurement is based on the five most recent test results, and it computes trends in water quality over time. The state requires that beaches be closed to swimming if the geometric mean rises above 35 cfu/100 ml.
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New state testing plan could mean fewer closed Island beaches