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Chemical and Pathogen Exposure Through Recreational Waters: The USGS Role in Beach Science
The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) is an independent, non-regulatory, multi-disciplinary agency that collects, monitors, analyzes, and provides impartial scientific understanding about the Nation’s natural reources. We conduct scientific investigations to support the efforts of the US Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA), Federal, state and local public-health officials, and all those involved in beach management, to keep swimmers safe.
To address the complex environmental problem of contaminated recreational waters, the USGS performs integrated studies involving such tools as hydrologic and sediment transport modeling, detection of indicator bacteria and pathogens using the most up-to-date scientific methods, creative and multidisciplinary approaches to determine the sources of fecal pollution, determination of environmental variables that influence indicator or pathogen concentrations, and models that integrate all these variables to explain and predict key phenomena. These targeted studies help society understand what is happening at troubled sites and provide science-based information on the factors that affect local beach water quality. This information assists managers in the design and interpretation of beach monitoring programs and in planning and implementing mitigation efforts. With our partners, we also test and develop timely, practical, and inexpensive technologies and protocols for measuring and predicting occurrences of unhealthy beach conditions.
Our Science Capabilities
USGS scientists use a range of techniques from diverse fields such as hydrology, microbiology, ecology, oceanography, geography and economics to study how we can better prevent, detect, and warn people about fecal contamination events. Our technical capabilities include: field work, laboratory analyses, source-detection methods, rapid testing methods, sensor technology, risk assessment, mapping using remote sensing techniques, modeling and spatial analysis. We play a unique role as a national science agency that can apply standardized procedures across broad geographies to understand pollution problems at the local, regional, and national scale.
Current Activity Highlights
USGS Capabilities for Interdisciplinary Investigations in Coastal and Nearshore Ecosystems of the Great Lakes: USGS Fact Sheet FS055-02 -- This Fact Sheet describes some of the many capabilities USGS employs for coastal science.
The USGS Ohio District Water Resources District Office in Columbus has an extensive microbiology program with scientists that investigate the processes and factors that affect bacterial, viral, and protozoan pathogens in the environment. Projects that address recreational water-quality issues include developing predictive models for beaches, testing rapid method technologies for indicators, quantifying bacterial indicators in sediments, and applying microbiological source-tracking techniques.
The Ohio District Microbiology Laboratory (ODML) is a fully-equipped modern laboratory with capabilities for traditional culturing of bacteria and coliphage as well as for molecular-based techniques. The ODML provides analytical data for projects within the USGS.
The USGS Coastal and Marine Geology Program conducts science investigations to understand the diverse coastal and marine areas of the United States. The abundant resources in these areas and their aesthetic beauty make them attractive areas to work, live, and play. However, to a very large extent these are also extremely fragile ecosystems; thus, the very attributes that have made them an ever-increasing focus of life in the United States make these regions and the resources they contain extremely vulnerable to mismanagement. The USGS Coastal and Marine Geology program contributes the scientific understanding needed to manage these areas wisely and to position society to reap the maximum sustainable benefit of their resources.
The major goal of the USGS Emerging Contaminants Program is to provide information on emerging contaminants for evaluation of their potential threat to environmental and human health. To accomplish this goal, the research activities of this project are to: develop analytical methods to measure chemicals and microorganisms or their genes in a variety of matrices (e.g. water, sediment, waste) down to trace levels, determine the environmental occurrence of these potential contaminants, characterize the myriad of sources and source pathways that determine contaminant release to the environment, define and quantify processes that determine their transport and fate through the environment, and identify potential ecologic effects from exposure to these chemicals or microorganisms.
The USGS has collaborated with the State of Wisconsin on a “Beach Health” web page that helps beach goers understand fecal pollution and make healthy choices about when to swim.
Pinellas County Beach Health Assessment
Monthly bacteriological monitoring of water and sediments at ten beach sites in the Gulf in Pinellas found that they are very clean and only exceed bacteriological limits after a solid week of rain. There are more bacteria in the sediments than the water column (reservoir). Fine grained sediments (in areas where the water was not flushed out frequently such as the intercoastal waterway and inside Tampa Bay) were most likely to be contaminated and to retain high bacterial counts even when the water column was clean. For more information, contact: Dr. Christina Kellogg, email@example.com, 727-803-8747, x3128
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