Water quality guidelines

LouiseLouise central PennsylvaniaMember

I am beginning to lead some open water clinics. Coaxing new swimmers into open water/ nearby lakes. Am beginning to read up on water quality data and recommendations. Never a scientist but having to wade through data and websites. So , any of you out there with suggestions on reputable data sources and guidelines? we swim primarily in central PA lakes, some with surrounding farmlands. Thanks and cheers. Louise

dpm50

Comments

  • wendyv34wendyv34 Vashon, WASenior Member

    Park districts and health departments routinely monitor water quality at lakes that have official swimming areas. Toxic algae blooms have become more common in western WA and are frequently on the local news. I just heard of one this morning, even though it's early in the season for the average person to go swimming around here.

    On a related note, when I instruct people on open water swimming, I remind them to keep their mouths shut, unless breathing and spit water out if they do get it in their mouths. It's kind of amazing how many people swim along with their mouths hanging open.

    ssthomas

    It's always a bad hair day when you work at a pool.

  • Karl_KingeryKarl_Kingery Denver, COMember
    edited May 26

    @wendyv34 is right. State environmental protection agencies (EG: PA DEP, MT DEQ, CDPHE, etc) all keep water quality databases. All of these agencies base their water quality guidelines off the EPA's analysis, which is based on some studies done in the 70s and 80s of beach goers and "full body contact". These studies used total coliform (not used anymore for standards, BTW) to determine the probability of having a gastrointestinal illness from swimming (by swimming they mean bathing, not open water swimming). This limit is set at 126 CFU/100 ml for E. coli on a single grab sample, which is pretty standard but can be different in some places. If I remember correctly, I think that this is somewhere around a 3% probability of getting sick. I can refer you to some of these papers and technical resources if you would like. Go to the state agency's website to get data. Sometimes you have to wade through some internet "backchannels" to find it.

    A couple of fundamental water quality rules for swimming though:

    1. If it smells or looks funky, it's probably funky.
    2. If it has just rained, the water quality is not going to be as good and you have a higher chance of getting sick.
    3. If the water body has both inflow and outflow (more is better), the water will get flushed out some and it's probably better quality. Similarly, if it's been sitting around for a while, it's probably worse.
    4. If you are closer to urban areas, shore, or there is more shoreline per body of water area (long and narrow vs. round), or you have a shallow bottom, the water quality is likely not going to be as good.
    5. Look for indicator bacteria (E. coli, enterococcus, clostridium perfringes and total coliform) data to get a historical record of data if you are interested. Don't look at high or low values, look at averages and standard deviations.
    6. Just because there is a sign saying that it's not advisable for you to go swimming doesn't mean you can't, it just means that you may be more likely to get sick.
    7. Use your best judgment.
    rosemarymintSpacemanspiffwendyv34Kate_AlexanderIronMikedpm50
  • SpacemanspiffSpacemanspiff Dallas, TexasSenior Member

    wendyv34 said:

    On a related note, when I instruct people on open water swimming, I remind them to keep their mouths shut, unless breathing and spit water out if they do get it in their mouths. It's kind of amazing how many people swim along with their mouths hanging open.

    @wendyv34 first, congrats on SCAR! Second, I swim with my mouth so far open I could catch fish in it. I haven't really cared much about this issue in the past. But I'm about to swim up the Harlem River, I'm a bit concerned. I've started trying to swim with my mouth closed, but as soon as I stop thinking about it, it's wide open again. Any tips?

    IronMike

    "Lights go out and I can't be saved Tides that I tried to swim against Have brought be down upon my knees Oh I beg, I beg and plead..."

  • rosemarymintrosemarymint Charleston, SCCharter Member
    edited May 26

    It will depend on the waterway. If it's a private lake, then the owners would be in charge of monitoring. If it's a public lake, they will only monitor if it's a designated swimming area with lifeguards. You would need to check with whomever owns the lake (town, county, state) to learn more about results. It's not super expensive to do tests, but it may take research to find out a good lab/price. I believe Penn State's agricultural extension service can do it pretty cheaply. If not, contact one of their agents for some help as this is their job. As stated above, look at averages. They typically only test once a week, so if it rained just before the test, it's going to spike. Same if a kid or dog craps in the water right by where they grabbed the sample. If there are multiple tests over multiple weeks with high counts, probably not a good place to swim.

    You care most about coliform bacteria counts. This is from livestock and wild ducks/geese. Land use is the biggest determinant of water quality issues. You can do your own look at land use to make determinations. You want streams to be lined with trees for at least 10 yards, preferably at least the width of a 50 yard pool on each side. This slows the stormwater runoff and filters out bacteria and other contaminants. General rule of thumb for everyone is wait 48-72 hours after rain that's more than about a 10th of an inch. This gives the lake a chance to recover (the bacteria generally die off after getting exposed to sunlight.) As Karl said, if there is inflow and outflow, the lake will probably have far better water quality than if it just sits there. If you see a ton of ducks and geese around, probably not a good place to swim as they crap a lot. If you see a lot of pond scum, that means the water is really stagnant and has a lot of nutrients in it, which can be an indicator for higher bacteria counts because of poop (which has a lot of nutrients.)

    Look at the streams coming into the lake and what's upstream or draining into those streams/lakes. You can do this initially via google maps. You are right to be concerned about ag, but your primary worry is about livestock. They only spread manure twice a year, if I'm not mistaken, on the Amish farms, so make plans to swim around that. Bacteria will die off if the manure gets to sit out in the sun for a while (i.e. several days to weeks) and will only get in the waterway if it rains before that happens. If they let their livestock walk around in the streams, then you can bet the cows are crapping in the water and that won't filter out well. You're in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, so there are a ton of ag outreach folks working with farmers, but some are resistant to any sort of environmental guidance.

    Hope that helps.

    evmo
  • NiekNiek Heiloo, NetherlandsCharter Member

    @Spacemanspiff Ducktape? :D

    http://openwaterswimming.eu - Cold, wind, waves, sunburn, currents, jellyfish and flotsam! Hop in and join the fun!

  • wendyv34wendyv34 Vashon, WASenior Member

    Spacemanspiff said:

    wendyv34 said:

    On a related note, when I instruct people on open water swimming, I remind them to keep their mouths shut, unless breathing and spit water out if they do get it in their mouths. It's kind of amazing how many people swim along with their mouths hanging open.

    @wendyv34 first, congrats on SCAR! Second, I swim with my mouth so far open I could catch fish in it. I haven't really cared much about this issue in the past. But I'm about to swim up the Harlem River, I'm a bit concerned. I've started trying to swim with my mouth closed, but as soon as I stop thinking about it, it's wide open again. Any tips?

    Thanks! SCAR was so much fun, I can't wait to go back next year and get all 4 lakes done. Your recommendation was definitely a factor in my going this year.

    Old habits take time to alter, you might have to concentrate on keeping your mouth closed a little bit more. Changing how you breathe could take a while, given how long you've been swimming. Many of the people I coach are relative noobs, so it's easier to influence their habits early-on. Think about all of the gross things that you don't want to ingest, remember those Canada geese that were pooping on the beach. I'll admit I try harder to focus on breathing and keeping water out when I'm in a lake that I know is dirty. I've gotten several sinus infections from getting water up my nose after swimming in Seattle's urban lakes, (racing on a windy day).

    In Seattle, I recommend swimming in salt water to help break the habit, but that obviously isn't practical for everyone. My (seawater) outdoor pool opens for the season today and everyone will complain about how salty it is early in the season, because they've been swimming in regular pools all winter...with their mouths open. I usually joke about getting a wee moon jelly in one's mouth if one forgets to close it, but those jellies are usually only that tiny during the winter, when the water is so cold it makes my teeth hurt.

    Good luck on your upcoming epic swim adventure!

    It's always a bad hair day when you work at a pool.

  • brunobruno Barcelona (Spain)Member

    What is exactly the reason why, after rain, the water has worse quality? Does it apply to any water body, or only to those near urban areas?

  • NiekNiek Heiloo, NetherlandsCharter Member
    edited May 28

    The rainwater runs over the land surface taking a lot of debris along to the river/lake.

    Water that seeps through the ground / under the surface to the river/lake is on average clean water.

    Here in the Netherlands most of our drinking water is river water that's pumped into the sand dunes and a few km further it gets extracted and pumped into the waterpipes. The sand dunes are the best and cheapest filter on can get.
    Mineral water is also rainwater that gets filtered by the ground.

    http://openwaterswimming.eu - Cold, wind, waves, sunburn, currents, jellyfish and flotsam! Hop in and join the fun!

  • wendyv34wendyv34 Vashon, WASenior Member

    The runoff going into the body of water is full of whatever has been dumped on lawns, streets & into the storm drain system. Oil, brake dust, antifreeze, disintegrated tire dust, pet & waterfowl feces, fertilizer, weed killer and so on. In extremely heavy rain, sewage treatment facilities can overflow, spilling large quantities of sewage into whatever body of water it drains into. Water in rural areas is more likely to contain agricultural chemicals and animal feces. Even in uninhabited areas that appear pristine, large numbers of animals in the area can degrade water quality when rain pulverizes feces and washes it into the water.

    All good reasons to keep your mouth closed unless you are breathing. If you get water in your mouth, spit it out. Avoid getting water up your nose. Consider ear plugs if you are prone to ear infections.

    If you have trouble with getting water up your nose, here's how I teach breathing to kids (AKA the secret to nose bubbles): Take a breath in through your mouth, close it, go under water and hum. (With the little ones, I have them cover their mouth with their hand so they learn to differentiate between exhaling through mouth and nose.) Air will come out your nose. As you are about to resurface, exhale through your mouth as well to clear water from your mouth. Repeat.

    evmo

    It's always a bad hair day when you work at a pool.

  • brunobruno Barcelona (Spain)Member

    I asked because in Spain we have lots of "blue flag" beaches, which I assume is according to bacteria, chemicals etc. presence (or lack thereof). But then you go swimming and it's disgustingly full of debris (plastic, etc.). In Barcelona's most famous beach, the water always has a suspicious green colour... Regardless if it has rained or not.

    For resources regarding water quality I'd go to www.blueflag.global/ (managed by Foundation for Environmental Education http://www.fee.global/ ). The document "Criteria for beaches" here http://www.blueflag.global/criteria/ is quite interesting. Though I think it's more European-focused.

  • rosemarymintrosemarymint Charleston, SCCharter Member

    Green water is a sign that there are a lot of nutrients from fertilizer in the water that cause excess algae growth. It could signify that people are dumping their bilge at sea or that treated sewage effluent (does not have bacteria, but does have lots of nitrogen and phosphorus) is pumped offshore, which is common in some coastal cities.

    We get blooms of that color every now and then in parts of New Jersey, typically late summer after a climatologically wet spring or early summer. Here it turns the color a brilliant turquoise. It won't harm you, unless it's a type of algae that is toxic (and you'd know if that were the case as you would smell it and feel it in your lungs well before you got in the water. Algae blooms are not good because they really mess up the ecosystem as the algae die off.

  • Karl_KingeryKarl_Kingery Denver, COMember

    @rosemarymint , I hope you are not suggesting people regularly swim next to or around sewage treatment outfalls. There is plenty more than just bacteria in the effluent. Also, not all states or countries require tertiary treatment or disinfection on their wastewater plants so it's best just to avoid those as much for what's in the effluent as what's in the environment using the nutrients in the effluent, but of course (I can't resist): dilution is the solution to pollution. B-)

    rosemarymint
  • rosemarymintrosemarymint Charleston, SCCharter Member

    Karl_Kingery said: @rosemarymint , I hope you are not suggesting people regularly swim next to or around sewage treatment outfalls. There is plenty more than just bacteria in the effluent. Also, not all states or countries require tertiary treatment or disinfection on their wastewater plants so it's best just to avoid those as much for what's in the effluent as what's in the environment using the nutrients in the effluent, but of course (I can't resist): dilution is the solution to pollution. B-)

    I was making super super generalized statements (and trying to assume the best, not the worst) in the context of the green color :-D. I could write a book on this stuff, but try not to go down the rabbit hole too far because most people really don't want or need to know that level (and if I get into it too deep, some folks get confused and that is even worse.) I'd expect western first world countries to have tertiary treatment, except I live in NJ, the last state in the nation to begin addressing its combined sewer overflows (and where they dumped untreated sewage in the ocean just offshore from swimming beaches as recently as the late 1980s), and I know there are places in Canada (cough Victoria cough) that just dump untreated sewage into high flow waterways. If you can't see it or smell it, it's not there, right???

    So yeah, don't swim near WWTP outfalls. And be smart about where you swim after it rains, especially if it hasn't rained in a long time.

    (Sorry Louise for hijacking your post!)

  • Karl_KingeryKarl_Kingery Denver, COMember

    @rosemarymint, I just wanted to make sure people didn't misunderstand your thoughts, because that's what I read when I read your post. Yes, we could dive into the weeds on this, but I don't think that it would be helpful for most people. Good advice:

    rosemarymint said: So yeah, don't swim near WWTP outfalls. And be smart about where you swim after it rains, especially if it hasn't rained in a long time.

  • LynnkubLynnkub Member

    bruno said: What is exactly the reason why, after rain, the water has worse quality? Does it apply to any water body, or only to those near urban areas?

    Rain carries a variety of pollutants from urban areas (bacteria, oil & grease, trash, etc) as well as agricultural areas (fertilizers, nutrients, etc). We have a general rule to stay out of open water for 72 hours after a "first flush" event. If there are consistent rains in an area, the pollutant load will diminish somewhat.

    In Southern California, we have monitoring websites that are useful for spot checks for elevated bacteria and sewage spills: http://ph.lacounty.gov/phcommon/public/eh/water_quality/beach_grades.cfm http://ocbeachinfo.com/ http://sdbeachinfo.com/

  • brunobruno Barcelona (Spain)Member

    It's amazing how much you can learn here, thank you all.

    In Spain people are very proud of our beaches. But you never hear about bacteria and other "invisible stuff"; only general statements about "water quality", without further data to back them up. I'll have to investigate about monitoring around here...

  • Karl_KingeryKarl_Kingery Denver, COMember

    @bruno , the website you sent was good info. It had a sub-link to this document which addresses some of the blue flag criteria: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/55371ebde4b0e49a1e2ee9f6/t/5899e01ac534a5036aecbeeb/1486479387823/Beach+Criteria+and+Explanatory+Notes.pdf.

  • IronMikeIronMike Moscow, RussiaCharter Member

    Was not quite sure where to put this question. I did all kinds of key word searches, and I think this thread is the closest to the best place for this. (Not sure we need more threads, do we? That's not the question, btw.)

    What in the world is this?

    Usually when I show up, there are ducks swimming around the shore; they swim out of my way when I enter the water. There is also normally, on a sunny morning like today, a babushka or two out there swimming. The water is normally moving one way or the other depending upon it entering or exiting the Moskva river system.* Today it was very still.

    Maybe that green stuff is harmless, maybe it's not. I decided to play it safe and not get in the water. Over-worrying or right move?

    *Strogino lake is an artificial lake (I believe) off of the Moskva river. Link is to a Google map of the area. The lake you see between "Strogino district" and "Shchukino district" is the lake I'm talking about.

  • timsroottimsroot Spring, TXCharter Member

    @IronMike - I wonder if it is the cyanobacteria, similar to what the Western end of lake Erie has had the last few Summers. I know they have closed beaches because of it.

    If that is indeed what it is, it is Caused, at least in part, by nitrogen runoff from fertilizers on nearby farm land.

    One of my bucket list swims is across the Western basin of lake Erie, I really hope they get it figured out. With the budget cuts at the EPA, I'm less than optimistic

    IronMike
  • dpm50dpm50 PA, U.S.Senior Member

    As for not swallowing water, since I began swimming w my masters group in the Schuylkill River, I admit I've ingested some of it every year for the past 3 yrs w/out I'll effect. Maybe it's served as a vaccine of sorts! :)

    Solo
  • rosemarymintrosemarymint Charleston, SCCharter Member

    Looks like the blue-green cyanobacteria. I wouldn't swim in it. Some species can be very toxic, as in killing dogs that swam in it. I don't know how to tell what species are toxic and what aren't, though. Smart to stay out of it.

    IronMike
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