Atlantic and Chesapeake Bay beaches tested high for bacteria 6 percent  of time

A stretch of Ocean City's beach earned the NRDC's five-star rating as one of the 12 safest bathing and swimming areas, with no water-quality violations and rigorous testing and notification policies. (Karl Merton Ferron / June 27, 2012)

Maryland's swimming beaches have better water quality than those in most coastal states, but still lag neighboring Delaware and Virginia, according to the latest review by an environmental group.

In its annual nationwide survey of beach water quality, the Natural Resources Defense Council says that Maryland's public wading and swimming areas ranked 11th among 30 coastal states, including those bordering the Great Lakes. 

Delaware ranked first overall, while Virginia ranked sixth, with fewer high-bacteria readings on their beaches.  But a stretch of beach in Ocean City running from 126th Street north to 145th Street earned the NRDC's five-star rating as one of the 12 cleanest in the nation, for not showing any bacteria problems since 2007 and having strong standards for frequent testing and prompt notification of the public if a problem is found.  Delaware's Dewey Beach also earned a five-star rating.

Six percent of water quality samples taken last year at the state's 70 Atlantic and Chesapeake Bay beaches exceeded health standards for bacteria that could make swimmers ill, the NRDC found.  Polluted storm-water runoff is one of the most frequent reasons for unsafe levels of bacteria related to human or animal waste being found in beach waters.

The beaches where bacteria levels exceeded state standards most often were in Cecil and Kent counties, followed by Calvert and St. Mary's.  Beaches in Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties had waters with excessive bacteria in them on average only 4 percent and 3 percent of the time, respectively.  The beaches at Ocean City, which were generally tested twice weekly during the peak summer tourism season, showed no excessive bacteria, the survey reports.

Nationally, 8 percent of beach water samples exceeded health standards last year, indicating the presence of human or animal waste, according to the group's report. The number of beach closings and swimming advisories issued was the third highest in the past 22 years, though down slightly from 2010.

NRDC senior attorney Jon Devine said that beaches nationwide could be healthier places if the Environmental Protection Agency adopted tougher water quality standards for recreational waters, which the agency has said it plans to finalize in the fall. EPA also needs to enact national rules for controlling storm-water pollution, he said.

Jay Apperson, spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment, which oversees beach monitoring in the state, welcomed the NRDC's five-star rating of a portion of Ocean City's beach, but questioned why the resort's entire beach wasn't included.

With a total of 203 coastal, bay and fresh-water beaches monitored in Maryland, Apperson said that overall they were open 97.8 percent of the time last year between Memorial Day and Labor Day, up from 96.5 percent in 2010. He noted that the state recently adopted stricter limits on storm-water runoff and is in the process of requiring reductions in major urban and suburban communities.

To learn more - and to see water quality on specific beaches - go here.