Mass. beaches get tough water quality grade

223 of 583 sites sampled poorly

It’s a great line in a throwback Boston-themed tune, but no one is eager to make “love that dirty water” a Massachusetts-wide phrase.

A study released Tuesday says waters of more than 200 Massachusetts beaches carried potentially hazardous levels of bacteria in the past year. The report from the Frontier Group and the Environment Massachusetts says many of those locations had concentrations of fecal bacteria above federally recommended limits in 2018.

More than ten beaches tested positive for the bacteria on more than 10 days or more in the last year, including at the Nahant Bay waterfront in Swampscott, where there were 39 days of positive tests out of 92 samples. At Malibu Beach in Dorchester, where a presser was held, potentially unsafe pollution was present in the water on 11 out of 92 days on which testing was conducted last year.

The report was particularly damning for Norfolk County, where the average beach was potentially unsafe for swimming on more than a fifth of the days that sampling occurred.

Fecal bacteria in water can give people gastrointestinal ailments. Common sources of the pollution include stormwater runoff and sewage overflows. The EPA estimates 57 million people nationwide get sick from contact with polluted waters annually.

Environment Massachusetts director Ben Hellerstein called the results “troubling” and the result of outdated sewage infrastructure combined with stormwater runoff.

Communities are not required to notify residents of sewage spills in Massachusetts, which means in some cases, people are swimming unaware of potential contamination.  

Notification legislation filed by Sen. Patricia Jehlen and Reps. Linda Dean Campbell and Denise Provost could change that, making Massachusetts  the 15th in the country to enact such a mandated disclosure law. 

Gabby Queenan, policy director for Massachusetts Rivers Alliance, called the bill an important “first step,” but urged major investments in water infrastructure. But the price tag for a broader solution could be hefty.

“We’re not providing enough state funding to cities and towns to do the necessary reduction of everything from sewer overflows to reducing bacteria in our lakes and ponds,” Sen. Jamie Eldridge told State House News Service. Eldridge co-led a legislative commission that examined water infrastructure statewide.

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

The News Service noted that major commission recommendations, like increasing the price of delivering clean water and expanding the bottle bill, met dead ends on Beacon Hill.

While Boston Harbor and other area waterways have become much cleaner in recent years, pollution is still a problem. In some communities, sewage and stormwater flow into the same pipes. These combined sewer systems can become overwhelmed during heavy storms, discharging untreated sewage into nearby waterways.

In 2014, a special commission on the issue deemed that $1 billion per year would be needed to handle wastewater and improve aged infrastructure.