Bacteria Criteria for Recreational Waters

NEIWPCC’s Water Quality Standards Workgroup frequently focuses on protecting recreational waters from bacterial pollution in line with EPA guidances.

Recreational waters are those used for swimming, kayaking, canoeing, white-water rafting, or simply enjoyed while hiking or bird watching. In 2004, the EPA finalized the Water Quality Standards for Coastal and Great Lakes Recreational Waters Rule to guide state, territory, and authorized tribal water quality programs on the adoption and implementation of bacteriological water quality criteria to protect waters designated for recreation. The guidance encouraged states to use E. coli or enterococci as the basis of their water quality criteria to help protect fresh recreational waters.

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In 2012, EPA finalized new recommended bacteria criteria. These criteria incorporate evidence from a series of newer studies on gastrointestinal illness rates for swimmers in recreational waters. Specifically, these studies looked at a correlation between illness and bacteria levels. The revised criteria also use a new definition of what is considered gastrointestinal illness; a person no longer needs to exhibit a fever (in addition to other symptoms) to be considered ill. States had until December 2017 to either adopt the new criteria or propose their own criteria to EPA.

As a result of the new definition of illness and the new data analyzed, the updated criteria are more stringent than before and could significantly affect state beach programs and beach advisories. NEIWPCC continues to facilitate discussions among states, and between the states and EPA, to discuss the states’ schedules for adoption of these new criteria and their approaches to incorporating EPA’s regulatory requirements into their beach programs.

More information on the 2012 proposed criteria can be found on EPA’s website: