Georgia beach monitoring keeps swimmers safe

: Elizabeth Cheney, a beach water quality manager with the Coastal Resources Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, tends to a beach advisory sign near Pier Village on St. Simons Island.
Wednesday, January 23, 2019

BRUNSWICK, Ga. -- Residents and visitors to Georgia’s coast may not know Elizabeth Cheney – but they’ve probably seen her handiwork.

As the beach water-quality manager for the Coastal Resources Division (CRD) of Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Cheney oversees water testing at the state’s most popular beaches. The water-quality monitoring signs posted at beach accesses on Jekyll, St. Simons and Tybee islands are her domain, and she takes her role seriously.

“We test the beach water year-round,” said Cheney, who has worked for CRD since 2003. “You’d be surprised – even in the winter months, there are people out there swimming. My program’s goal is to test for the presence of potentially harmful bacteria and notify the public of the risks associated with swimming in waters with elevated bacteria.”

Most of Georgia’s beaches are exceptionally clean, she noted. Part of that cleanliness is due to good land management by local governments. In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency gave the state a nearly perfect score for beach-water cleanliness in 2017, the most recent available year of data.

“The EPA looks at our data from all 17 of the beaches we test year-round on Georgia’s coast,” Cheney said. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, those beaches were safe for swimmers in 2017. That’s impressive, and we want swimmers to be confident that our beaches are healthy.”

Cheney’s work is funded by the EPA under the Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health (“BEACH”) Act, a law passed by Congress in 2000. The law was an update to the Clean Water Act of 1977 and requires beach states to test for potentially harmful bacteria, and to inform the public when swimming may be unsafe.

“As the Department of Natural Resources, we receive the EPA grant because we were already the entity on the coast that was testing the water for our shellfish management program,” she said. “But this is also a public health program. When we started almost two decades ago, we sat down with our partners at the Environmental Protection Division (EPD) of DNR, and the state Department of Public Health (DPH). We built a consensus of what we wanted the program to be and thought about how best we could serve the public.”

Since then, the beach water-quality monitoring program has evolved into a multi-agency partnership that includes DPH, EPD, CRD and beach management agencies including the Jekyll Island Authority, city of Tybee Island and Glynn County.

“We at CRD monitor the water and do the lab work,” Cheney said. “When we find elevated levels, we notify the health department and they issue the swim advisory. That doesn’t mean the beach is closed – it more serves as a notice that people probably shouldn’t be immersing their head or face in the water, because it might make them sick.”

When CRD staff tests beach water, technicians are looking for the presence a bacteria known as enterococcus. This bacteria lives in the guts of warm-blooded animals, including humans, and is a good indicator for scientists who want to measure the safety of beach water.

“Enterococcus is a little better indicator than other bacteria, and it’s easy to test for,” she said. “It also strongly correlates to the rates of swimmer illness.”

Georgians and visitors to the state’s coast can always check on their favorite beach site by visiting GAHealthyBeaches.org or CoastalGADNR.org/HealthyBeaches for current advisories and more information. The signs posted at beach accesses are also regularly updated year-round to reflect current conditions.

“I always like to remind people with the phrase, ‘Go online or check the sign,’” Cheney said. “We want to notify the public of the risks of swimming in water with elevated levels, but we don’t want to alarm the public. The goal is to communicate it in a way the public understands.”

The Coastal Resources Division’s beach water-quality monitoring is part of the Georgia Coastal Management Program, which balances economic development along Georgia’s coast with the preservation of natural, environmental, historic and recreational resources for the benefit of the state’s present and future generations.