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Toes in Water

In the heat of summer, the chances are good we’ll all eventually find some sand between our toes. The only question is whether the waters that surround it are safe to dip our feet into in the first place. Here’s how to find out.


The Natural Resources Defense Council has released a new searchable guide to recreational water quality at more than 3,000 of America’s coastal and Great Lakes beaches. It’s a great way to see whether or not troubled waters are lapping at your favorite beach and where else to go if they are.


The new wave of data tells a mixed story. While beach closings and advisory days topped 20,000 for the 8th time in nine years, they’re down 14 percent from 2011. The largest single source of pollution was storm run-off, which occurs when heavy precipitation washes toxins, bacteria, and other contaminants off hard surfaces like pavement, into storm drains, past overwhelmed treatment plants, and straight into the sea.


It’s not just a coastal problem. Even in America’s landlocked heartland, runoff enters rivers that eventually wind to the ocean. That makes preventing storm run-off something we should all around our homes do no matter where we live. Here’s how:

  • Keep impervious surfaces like cement and asphalt to a minimum—they channel rain and snowmelt into storm drains instead of the ground. Better options are things like paving stones and bricks, whose in-between spaces let water find the soil.
  • When installing new pavement, choose permeable materials.
  • Capture the water that runs off your roof with a rain barrel that collects it for watering lawns and gardens.
  • Go native. Lawns aren’t great at absorbing water, so replace some or all of yours with native vegetation, which will soak up more run-off, look nicer, and require less work.
  • Add compost to your lawn. It makes everything growing there healthier and increases your yard’s capacity to consume whatever falls upon it.
  • Don’t leave soil bare. It’ll harden into a waterproof state. Instead, cover exposed areas with mulch or gravel.
  • Plant and protect trees. Their root systems are big and thirsty, which allows the ground to drink in much more water than it would without them.
  • Build a rain garden in a shallow depression positioned along your run-off’s path and fill it with native plants and grasses. Water will head there instead and have the space and time to be collected and absorbed.
  • Keep a clean yard. Gather pet poop and dispose of it in the toilet or the trash.
  • Don’t fertilize or use pesticides. Much of anything you spray or sprinkle onto your yard simply gets washed away.
  • Wash your car on your lawn, not in your driveway.
  • If you spill fluids when you perform car maintenance, soak them up with a disposable material rather than hose them off.

Always remember the run-off rule of thumb: Don’t put, pour, spill, or leave anything on your lawn or driveway that you wouldn’t want to swim in. That will help make sure that your family’s favorite beach doesn’t drown in a sea of woe.


Photo: Tamera Ferro

Geoff the Inkslinger and his Dog

The Inkslinger has written about environmental issues for over 20 years and is a freelance writer for some of America's most iconoclastic companies and non-profits. His true loves include nature, music of the Americana/rock and roll variety, interior design, books, old things, good stories, pagan rituals, and his wife of 24 years, with whom he lives in an undisclosed chemical-free rural Vermont location along with his teenage daughter and two infinitely hilarious Australian shepherds!