Taking a Dip in Virginia: What's in the Water at the Beach?

“You never know what’s in here.”

Steve Valentine said people often give him a funny look when they see him in his brown waders, carrying a long yellow stick with an automotive clamp attached to the end.

“The hardest part is trying to stay upright,” he said as he carefully inched into the waves of the Potomac River before clamping a small plastic bottle onto his pole and dropping it into the water. “Just dip it in."

But when he tells them, Valentine said people are fascinated by what he does. "There's a lot of citizens that are concerned."

Valentine is just one of dozens of scientists who will be collecting water samples at your local beach this summer, looking for a type of bacteria called Entercocci. Valentine and others said the bacteria itself doesn’t make you sick, but it’s a cheap way to test in salt water for other things that could.

"It’s indicating that pathogens, other bacteria or viruses, could be in the water that would make you sick," said Matt Skiljo from Virginia’s Department of Health. He runs Virginia's federally funded BEACH program, which samples the water at more than 40 beaches throughout the state.

"It can come from humans, in our sewage that's on land, when we're swimming,” Skiljo said.

If the number gets too high, local health departments will post swimming advisory signs on the beach, telling you to stay out of the water.

Skilljo said, "Ultimately, the people who like to go swimming, we want to be able let them know if it is safe or not."

To get you ready for summer, the News 4 I-Team created a map of all the federally monitored beaches throughout Virginia, Maryland and Delaware.

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Note: A result of "0" means there was little to no bacteria.
Experts say swimming advisories are typically issued when samples have an average of 104/100ml or more.

Whether it’s in the Bay or on the coast, you can look up your favorite beach and see how many times it exceeded safe levels in the last five years.

Virginia beaches average about 39 advisories a year.

But last year was a tough year, with more than 70 swimming advisories posted because of heavy rains, according to Skiljo. "When there's a heavy rain, don't go swimming for about three days because that's how long it takes to clear up."

The I-Team found Fairview Beach has had the highest readings in the state for three out of the last four years - more than 200 times the safe level on individual days in June and July.

"We want to know why,” Fairview Beach resident Terry O’Toole told us. He lives in a house overlooking one of the sampling sites.

O’Toole said it looked quiet the day News4 visited, with very few people walking along this private beach. But he said hundreds of swimmers descend on this section of the Potomac River each summer for Aquapalooza and other boating events.

O’Toole explained when an advisory is posted, you can never see or smell the problem. Swimmers and scientists "need the testing, that's how we know."

But just this past year, Skilljo said the EPA informed Virginia it will no longer fund testing at Fairview Beach because it is too far up the river to be considered a "coastal beach."

Valentine said the river creates “sort of a horseshoe” here, just south of Aquia Harbor, Potomac Creek and Belvedere Beach. He said runoff can get trapped here and “sloshes” around in an eddy, which might account for the high readings.

But the source of that pollution is still a mystery.

"There could be a flock of birds that were just hanging out here or five people just walked their dogs and didn't clean up after them,” Skiljo explained. “Those things can contaminate the water as much as sewage overflow or runoff from the land."

Which is why he said Virginia decided if the federal government won't pay anymore, the state will.

They want to know why it’s happening - and when it’s safe to swim - so your day at the beach doesn't end up sending you to the doctor.

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