A new beach water safety report shows Maine’s coastal communities continue to struggle with high bacteria levels at local beaches.

The 23rd annual Testing the Waters: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches report from the Natural Resources Defense

Council ranks Maine 27th out of 30 coastal states for beach water quality. Environment Maine released the report June 27 at Portland’s East End Beach and called on federal and state officials to do more to protect Maine beachgoers from dangerous water quality.

Speakers included NRDC, Friends of Casco Bay, Allagash Brewing Company, and a Portland physician, who all joined the call to clean up Maine’s beaches.

“A day at the beach shouldn’t turn into a night in the hospital,” said Emily Figdor, Director of Environment Maine, in a news release. “Maine beaches are summer playgrounds for local families, and they draw visitors from around the world. We need to do everything we can to clean up the sewage and contaminated runoff that put Maine beaches and beach-goers at risk. It will take action by our leaders in Augusta and Washington to be successful.”

This year’s Testing the Waters report reveals that 11 percent of water samples taken from 71 Maine beaches in 2012 exceeded the state’s daily maximum bacterial standard of 104 colonies/100 ml. The beaches with the greatest percentage of samples exceeding the standard were Goodies Beach in Knox County, Riverside (Ogunquit) in York County, Laite Beach in Knox County, Short Sands Beach in York County, Ferry Beach (Scarborough) in Cumberland County, and Crescent Beach (Kittery) in York County.

Knox County had the highest rate of water samples exceeding the health standard at 30 percent, followed by Waldo at 17 percent, Lincoln at 13 percent, Hancock at 12 percent, York at 10 percent, Cumberland at 9 percent, and Sagadahoc at 3 percent.

“As a doctor, I can tell you that beach water bacterial contamination is a serious health threat,” stated Rosie Davis, a physician from Portland. “And as a mom, I can tell you that my beach bag includes a pail and shovel for sand castles, not a water testing kit. Parents and doctors want standards in place that reasonably protect public health and a reporting system we can trust to tell us when the water isn’t safe. But right now the EPA says it’s OK for 1 in 28 people to get sick with illness like diarrhea, nausea, or vomiting when they go to the beach. That’s simply unacceptable.”

Beach water pollution is known to cause a range of waterborne illnesses in swimmers, including stomach flu, skin rashes, ear and eye infections, hepatitis, and neurological disorders. There were a total of 194 beach closings or advisory days in 2012, an increase of 73 percent from the 112 days in 2011. Elevated bacteria levels were responsible for 92 percent of the closing/advisory days and 8 percent were preemptive due to heavy rainfall.

The federal funding that supports Maine’s beach water monitoring program is currently in limbo. President Obama’s fiscal year 2014 budget suggests eliminating funding for a federal grant program under the Beach Act that Maine and many other states rely upon to fund their monitoring programs.

“Maine’s tourism and fishing industries combined bring well over a billion dollars a year into Maine’s economy,” said Will Everitt of Friends of Casco Bay. “If we don’t invest in our future and clean up our water, we will see more sewage overflows, more swimmers getting sick, and our natural resource based economy will falter. Maine people deserve a more comprehensive beach testing and reporting program so everyone in the state will know if their beaches are safe.”

The Testing the Waters report for Maine revealed some success stories and some persistent problem areas. There was good news in the town of Camden, which received funding from the Maine Coastal Program to improve its monitoring and public outreach program. The increased monitoring led to the discovery of an illicit sewer cross-connection to a storm drain that empties to the Megunticook River. It was repaired within one week of discovery.

Four beach management areas—Goodies, Goose Rocks, East End, and Riverside-Ogunquit — accounted for 36 percent of the reported beach action days in 2012. Higher than normal rainfall in 2012 is considered one of the culprits. Runoff pollution contributes to bacteria loads at these locations through factors such as storm drains that empty directly onto beaches, a high percentage of impervious ground cover, and the close proximity of urbanized areas.

In addition to calling for a more comprehensive and adequately funded monitoring effort in Maine, Testing the Waters highlights two critical actions that the Environmental Protection Agency can take to protect people at the beach. First, because polluted runoff is the biggest known source of beach water pollution, EPA should strengthen and rigorously enforce national standards for polluted storm water to reduce runoff using innovative green infrastructure solutions. Second, EPA should reconsider its new recreational beach water quality criteria, which leave beachgoers inadequately protected and unnecessarily exposed to bacteria, viruses, and parasites that can make them sick.

Find the report at nrdc.org/beaches.