With summer in full swing and beach goers enjoying sun, surf and sand, while social distancing Save the Harbor/Save the Bay released its annual report on the water quality at Winthrop Beach.
According to Save the Harbor/Save the Bay’s Annual Beach Water Report Card, Winthrop Beach’s water quality slipped dramatically in the summer of 2019 and posted its lowest grade in the past six years.
Winthrop Beach scored a 78 percent last summer after posting a perfect 100 percent in 2018. In 2017 Winthrop Beach scored a 94 percent; a 100 percent in 2016; a 100 percent in 2015; and a 94 percent in 2014.
Last year’s score brought down Winthrop Beach’s six year average to 94 percent.
The drop in some scores at beaches like Winthrop Beach was not surprising. Though places like Lynn, Swampscott and Boston continue to track down and correct old combined outfall sewer connections and broken pipes, it is a slow go and there are no easy fixes.
Old combined outfall hookups mix stormwater and sewage together after a big storm and pump it out into the harbor.
Berman has long said that there are two ways to fix an urban beach problem. One way is to sever every pipe that goes into the beach like the city did in South Boston years ago but that is very expensive.
The other way to ensure cleaner water is for residents to look at their own water and sewer hook ups and make sure they are not old hook ups that lead out into storm water drains.
Both Lynn and Swampscott have planned improvements to their sewer and stormwater systems, which Berman said he expects will result in significant improvement in water quality on Kings Beach when they are completed.
However, things are a lot better than they were 25 years ago when the Deer Island treatment facility was in disarray and a broken outflow just off the harbor beaches was pumping 200 million gallons of raw sewage back into the water after heavy storms.
“Changes in the intensity and frequency of summer storms often explain the variations we see on our beaches from year to year,” said Save the Harbor/Save the Bay’s Bruce Berman. “These seasonal variations are why Save the Harbor/Save the Bay is reluctant to draw conclusions from a single year’s sampling results, preferring to rely on the multi-year average we have included in this report.”
In 2019, weekly water quality testing at Boston’s regional beaches began on May 23 and concluded on September 1.
“These scores reflect the percent of samples that complied with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health’s single sample limit for bacteria which is the most straightforward way of evaluating beach water quality and potential impacts on human health,”’ said Berman.
Winthrop was not alone in 2019 and the overall water quality safety rating for Boston Harbor’s regional beaches owned by the Commonwealth and managed by the Department of Conservation and Recreation was 88 percent, a decline from the previous year’s score of 94 percent.
“2019 was one of the wettest years on record for Massachusetts, part of the wettest 12-month stretch in the state’s 124 years of record keeping,” said Berman. “Some summer storms dropped a month’s worth of rain in just a few hours. It was a summer of extremes, with July also being the hottest one on record, making beach accessibility even more critical to the region’s residents.”
Berman added that 2019 marked a change in beach posting protocol by the Department of Public Health, which resulted in 39 additional days when area beaches were incorrectly flagged as unsafe for swimming, including over the 4th of July weekend.
“While we recognize the importance of protecting public health, the current system is severely flawed and needs to be improved,” said Berman. “One critical weakness of our beach posting and flagging program, where bacteria testing triggers advisories, is that postings are always a day late because beach managers must wait 24 to 36 hours after a sample is collected to obtain test results. Beach water quality may have already changed significantly during this period, and the prior day’s test does not necessarily reflect current conditions.”
Berman said Save the Harbor/Save the Bay had hoped to resolve this situation before the start of the 2020 beach season, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced public agencies, advocates and other stakeholders to direct their attention and resources to other pressing public health concerns.