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Water: Recreation

Recreational Water Quality Criteria

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EPA's nationally recommended recreational water quality criteria (RWQC) protect human health in inland and coastal waters. The criteria are designed to protect primary contact recreation, such as swimming, surfing, and diving.

EPA last issued ambient water quality criteria recommendations for recreational waters in 1986. EPA issues such recommendations under the authority of the Clean Water Act (CWA). Amendments to the CWA by the Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health (BEACH) Act of 2000 directed the EPA to conduct studies associated with pathogens and human health, and to publish new or revised criteria recommendations for pathogens and pathogen indicators based on those studies.

2012 Recreational Water Quality Criteria

EPA has released its final 2012 Recreational Water Quality Criteria. The Agency’s new criteria reflect the latest scientific knowledge, public comments, and external peer review. They are designed to protect the public from exposure to harmful levels of pathogens while participating in water-contact activities such as swimming, wading, and surfing in all waters designated for such recreational uses.

November 2011 Avian Expert Workshop

EPA held an experts workshop in fall 2011 to evaluate the state-of-knowledge on the risks that avian and other wildlife fecal pollution pose to human health in U.S. recreational waters. Workshop participants also discussed the tools and data needed for evaluating those risks. Twenty-six experts from the United States and Canada participated in the workshop, representing multiple U.S. federal agencies (including the EPA), state and local government, a public research agency, academia, and consultants. The EPA held this meeting as part of a 2008 settlement agreement with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA), and Los Angeles County.

The settlement agreement also requires that, by December 15, 2012, EPA evaluate whether any of the studies identified during the workshop should be performed to help EPA improve our understanding of human health risks for any future recreational water quality criteria revision. There were no specific studies identified by the workshop experts.

February 2009 Inland Waters Expert Scientific Workshop

In February 2009 WERF hosted and EPA supported an experts workshop on inland waters in order to obtain expert input on research and analyses that could be initiated and completed by December 2010 to support the applicability of EPA's new recreational criteria to flowing fresh waters and lakes; and what longer-term research should be pursued to gain a better understanding of the health risks from recreating in inland waters as compared to marine coastal or Great Lakes waters. WERF has published a report that summarizes the proceedings and findings.

March 2007 Expert Workshop for Input on New Recreational Water Quality Criteria

EPA's March 2007 Experts Scientific Workshop was a forum for discussion of critical research and science needs for developing new or revised recreational ambient water quality criteria. The Report of the Experts Scientific Workshop summarizes the discussion of the scientific and technical panels.

2013 Stakeholder Webinar

In January 2013, EPA conducted a webinar to allow stakeholders the opportunity to ask clarifying questions on EPA’s new recreational water quality criteria recommendations.

2012 Stakeholder Webinar

In January 2012, EPA conducted a webinar to allow stakeholders the opportunity to ask clarifying questions on the proposed Draft Recreational Water Quality Criteria recommendations.
Webinar Presentation slides (PDF) (21 pp, 465K)

2011 Stakeholder Meeting

In June 2011, EPA held a face-to-face stakeholder meeting in New Orleans, and presented a recap of this meeting via the web. The Agency gave stakeholders the opportunity to comment on EPA’s evaluation, synthesis, summarization and statistical analysis of the studies and the development of options for the overall structure and content of the criteria.
2011 Stakeholder Meeting Summary (PDF) (7 pp, 198K)

2010 Stakeholder Webinar

In October 2010, EPA conducted a Recreational Water Quality Criteria Stakeholder Meeting via the web. The webinar provided stakeholders with an update on EPA’s Research for the Development of Recreational Water Quality Criteria and EPA’s Current Thinking on Elements of Criteria.
Webinar Presentation Slides (PDF) (31 pp, 355K)

2009 Stakeholder Meeting

In October 2009, EPA held the “Stakeholder Meeting on EPA’s Development of New or Revised Recreational Water Quality Criteria.” In addition, we held discussions and received input on setting criteria to be protective of children, rapid methods, and sources of fecal contamination and site specific consideration.
Meeting Highlights (PDF) (23 pp, 271K)

2008 Stakeholder Meeting

In February 2008, EPA held a multi-stakeholder meeting in Washington, DC. At this meeting the Agency presented its critical path research and science and integrated approach to answering key science questions for developing scientifically sound criteria.
Meeting Highlights (PDF) (6 pp, 38K)

Settlement Agreement and Consent Decree

The original Consent Decree deadline of October 15, 2012 for EPA’s Final Recreational Criteria Document has been changed to November 30, 2012.

EPA conducted critical science and research in order to publish new or revised recreational water quality criteria in accordance with a Consent Decree and Settlement Agreement between EPA, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA) and the Los Angeles County Flood Control District (LA County). In August 2008, EPA and the plaintiffs reached a settlement on a suit filed in Federal District Court for the Central District of California against EPA regarding the requirements to meet statutory deadlines in the Clean Water Act, as amended by the BEACH Act, to conduct studies on pathogens and pathogen indicators in coastal recreational waters and publish water quality criteria recommendations based on those studies.

Consistent with the Consent Decree and Settlement Agreement, EPA provided status reports to the plaintiffs on EPA's progress. The reports were due twice per year until July 2012 and included descriptions of the actions taken by EPA during the preceding six months and descriptions of the actions EPA intends to take during the following six months.

2011 Draft Recreational Water Quality Criteria Document

EPA has released for scientific views the 2012 draft document Recreational Water Quality Criteria. The document contains EPA’s draft recreational water quality criteria for protecting human health in ambient waters that are designated for primary contact recreation. EPA accepted comments on the draft criteria from December 21, 2011 to February 21, 2012.

2004 Bacteria Rule for Coastal and Great Lakes Recreation

This rule established more protective health-based federal bacteria standards for those states and territories bordering Great Lakes or ocean waters that had not yet adopted standards in accordance with the BEACH Act of 2000. These federal water quality standards were part of the Administration’s Clean Beaches Plan, which also includes grants to states and territories for beach monitoring and public notification programs, technical guidance, and scientific studies.

1986 Recreational Water Quality Criteria

The new or revised recreational water quality criteria recommendations will soon replace the current criteria recommendations, established in 1986, Recreational Water Quality Criteria can be used by states, Tribes, and Territories in their adoption of new water quality standards (WQS) to protect people from illness associated with fecal contamination in surface waters.

Critical Path Science Plan

The Critical Science Plan describes the overall research goals, key science questions associated with data gaps in the existing science, and the studies that EPA intends to conduct or support to develop new or revised water quality criteria for pathogens and pathogen indicators.

The Critical Path Science Plan was informed, in part, by the input on the essential research and science needs identified by 43 international and U.S. experts from academia, States, public interest groups, EPA and other federal agencies who attended a scientific workshop held by EPA in March 2007. EPA sponsored the workshop to get individual input from the greater scientific and technical community on the near-term research and science needs to develop new or revised Clean Water Act Section 304(a) criteria. All of the research activities included in the Critical Path Science Plan were identified in the Experts Report as high priority. EPA further prioritized the research activities identified by the experts so as to focus on only the studies that EPA believed could be designed, conducted and effectively incorporated into the development and publication of new or revised criteria within a reasonable time frame.

The projects and activities below represent high priority research and science that EPA conducted to establish the scientific foundation for the development of new or revised recreational water quality criteria recommendations. Full descriptions of each project and others can be found in the Critical Path Science Plan.

Epidemiological studies below were part of the National Epidemiological and Environmental Assessment of Recreational Water (NEEAR).




Complete a literature review that describes the existing knowledgebase available to characterize the relative risks of human illness from various sources of fecal contamination in recreational waters. N/A Print Version (PDF) (103 pp, 1.5MB)
Complete a literature review that provides a summary of information on waterborne zoonotic pathogens that come primarily from warm-blooded animals. N/A Print Version (PDF) (109 pp, 2.4MB)
Complete an epidemiological study in marine waters impacted by urban runoff in a temperate region Print Version (PDF) (1 pg, 25K) Print Version (PDF) (449 pp, 24MB)
Complete an epidemiological study in a tropical region Print Version (PDF) (1 pg, 19K)
Conduct epidemiological studies at POTW-impacted marine beaches in Fairhope, Alabama and Goddard, Rhode Island (P1, P2) Print Version (PDF) (2 pp, 20K) http://www.ehjournal.net/content/9/1/66 
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Conduct QMRA (based on measurements of pathogenic organisms and indicators) to estimate illness at a freshwater beach impacted by agricultural animal sources of fecal contamination (location to be determined) (P4) Print Version (PDF) (2 pp, 52K) Print Version (PDF) (456 pp, 10MB)
Study various parameters that affect performance of qPCR signal for enterococci and compare with other methods and pathogens in treated wastewater mixed with ambient waters (enterococci, E. coli, Cryptosporidium, and enterovirus) (P8) Print Version (PDF) (2 pp, 24K) Print Version (PDF) (181 pp, 16.1MB)
Design and evaluate a monitoring approach that will characterize the quality of beach waters that takes into account the spatial and temporal variability associated with water sampling (P12) Print Version (PDF) (1 pg, 32K) Print Version (PDF) (69 pp, 1.8MB)
Evaluate multiple indicator/method combinations to develop quantifiable relationships (P15) Print Version (PDF) (2 pp, 70K) Print Version (PDF) (54 pp, 1.3MB)
Study the effects of sampling holding time, sample storage, and preservation on sample integrity for future use (P16) Print Version (PDF) (1 pg, 18K) Print Version (PDF) (58 pp, 479K)
(1) Develop, refine, validate, and publish one or more new ambient test and (2) develop, refine, validate, and publish one or more new wastewater test method(s) provided the results of P8 and P18 indicate that a new wastewater test method is necessary (P17) Print Version (PDF) (1 pg, 14K) http://water.epa.gov/scitech/swguidance/ methods/bioindicators/biological_index.cfm
Evaluate the suitability of individual combinations of indicators and methods for different CWA programs (P18) Print Version (PDF) (2 pp, 22K) Print Version (PDF) (21 pp, 182K)
Re-analyze archived NEEAR samples using molecular methods for other indicators, including at least E. coli, provided the samples have not degraded during storage (depending on the outcome of P16 and the nature of indicator/method) (P22) *  NA  NA
Pilot test Virtual Beach model for beach notification and advisories/closures (P23) Print Version (PDF) (2 pp, 67K) Print Version (PDF) (152 pp, 4.5MB)
Refine and validate existing water quality models for freshwater beach notification and advisories/closures (P24)
Refine and validate other existing water quality models for marine beach notification and advisories/closures (P25)
Develop technical protocol for site-specific application of predictive models to be used in making beach advisory decisions (P26) Print Version (PDF) (2 pp, 23K) Print Version (PDF) (71 pp, 1.2MB)
Compare EPA’s 1986 Bacteria Criteria recommendations to NEEAR studies to better understand the relationship between fecal contamination and illness in these data sets, provided EPA can obtain the raw data used to develop the 1986 Criteria (P27) *



Evaluate applicability of NEEAR Great Lakes data to inland waters. (P28) Print Version (PDF) (2 pp, 84K) Print Version (PDF) (52 pp, 553K)
Conduct statistical analysis of children data from epidemiological studies (P29) Print Version (PDF) (2 pp, 29K) Print Version (PDF) (2 pp, 27K)

* Projects were not completed due to contingencies identified in the Settlement Agreement.

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