Diving into Citizen Science: Surfrider Volunteers Protect Public Health at the Beach

Surfrider Foundation volunteers.
Surfrider Foundation volunteers working hard to protect clean water at their local beaches.

The Surfrider Foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to the protection and enjoyment of the world’s ocean, waves and beaches, for all people, through a powerful activist network. From testing our coastal waters to ensuring that runoff stays in your garden to reducing plastic pollution, Surfrider’s programs help ensure that our marine ecosystems are protected. Every year, Surfrider releases a Clean Water Report, based on the work of our volunteer-run water testing program the Blue Water Task Force (BWTF), to highlight the organization’s clean water programs and what their volunteers are accomplishing around the country.  

The Surfrider Foundation’s 2021 Clean Water Report shows that BWTF programs around the country are uncovering chronic water quality pollution in popular bay and ocean beaches. Multiple Surfrider chapters in Hawai’i, for example, are finding consistently high bacteria levels in areas popular with the public. 

“The ocean is such an important part of our daily life in Hawaiʻi that we just assume coastal waters are safe and clean,” said Lauren Blickley, Hawaiʻi Regional Manager for Surfrider Foundation. “Unfortunately, our Blue Water Task Force water quality data show that coastal areas throughout Oʻahu, Kauaʻi and Maui are chronically polluted – primarily through failing wastewater infrastructure, cesspool pollution, and polluted runoff.” Unfortunately, multiple BWTF programs across the country are facing similar issues with their local beaches. 

Operating within a national network of over 50 labs, BWTF labs provide critical water quality information to protect public health and clean water through the analysis of samples collected by citizen scientists. BWTF labs test for Enterococcus, a type of bacteria that lives in the gut of warm-blooded animals. When Enterococcus is found in the water, it indicates that other harmful pathogens may be present that could make you or your pet sick.  

If you’re curious about water quality near you, check out the BWTF map to see if a chapter is testing in your area. If there is, and you’d like to get involved, contact mpenaortiz@surfrider.org. Surfrider can always use more volunteers to help protect clean water! Volunteers are needed to collect and transport samples, analyze samples in the lab, and enter data- no experience necessary, and all training is provided by your local chapter.  

In 2021, the BWTF network processed a record breaking 8,532 water samples collected from nearly 500 beaches across the country. Now, approaching full operating capacity after COVID-19 health and safety considerations halted all testing in March of 2020, the BWTF has nearly 50 active labs providing critical information to protect public health at beaches and in recreational waters where no one else is testing.  

Map provided by The Surfrider Foundation.

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Chapter water testing programs are designed to fill in the gaps and extend the coverage of state and local agency beach programs. Surfrider Foundation volunteers test beaches that are not covered by agencies, and also monitor potential sources of pollution such as stormwater outlets, rivers and creeks that discharge onto the beach. The Blue Water Task Force operates year-round, providing public health protection through the off-season when lifeguards leave the beach and health officials stop collecting water samples.  

Surfrider’s data is also revealing chronic pollution problems and helping to focus local efforts to restore clean water. The 2021 Clean Water Report features ten priority beaches from the East Coast, West Coast, Puerto Rico and Hawaiʻi where Surfrider Foundation chapters are consistently measuring high bacteria levels that exceed state health standards for recreational water, listed below. These priority beaches represent a variety of recreational waters and access points that are important to local communities, and where water quality conditions could be putting public health at risk.