Aug 29, 2011

Coastal Swimming Waters May Be Affected by Excessive Rains, Flooding from Hurricane Irene

Public should take precautions when swimming in affected coastal waters

State officials yesterday advised that once conditions are safe in areas affected by Hurricane Irene, the public should take precautions when swimming in coastal and sound-sidewaters, as excessive rains and flooding can increase levels of bacteria in the water.

“Waters impacted by Hurricane Irene can contain elevated levels of bacteria that can make people sick,” said J.D. Potts, manager of the N.C. Recreational Water Quality Program. “Floodwaters and storm water runoff can contain pollutants such as waste from septic systems, sewer line breaks, pet waste, wildlife, petroleum products and other chemicals. People should avoid swimming near storm water outfalls and inlets as these areas tend to have concentrated amounts of pollutants.”

Excessive flooding may also lead to the pumping of floodwaters into the ocean surf from coastal towns. People should avoid swimming in areas where this is occurring. There have already been reports of sanitary sewer malfunctions where sewage is overflowing manholes and lift stations. These overflows could potentially discharge into coastal waters.

While state officials do not have laboratory confirmation that elevated bacteria are in the water, there is an increased chance that contamination is present, and that those swimming have an increased chance of adverse health effects.

The N.C. Recreational Water Quality Program in the Division of Marine Fisheries will test coastal waters in areas with excessive rainfall and flooding from Hurricane Irene. If the testing indicates high levels of bacteria, program staff will then issue swimming advisories for the affected areas.

The program samples 240 sites at ocean and sound beaches weekly from April to October in accordance with federal and state laws. Enterococci, the bacteria group used for testing, are found in the intestines of warm-blooded animals. While the bacteria group does not cause illness itself, scientific studies indicate that enterococci may indicate the presence of other disease-causing organisms.