Surfrider San Mateo County Chapter


What are we testing for?

The methods used by the BWTF measure the amount of indicator bacteria in a water sample. E. coli (not the same species that causes food poisoning) is measured in freshwater samples, and Enterococcus bacteria are measured in marine water to determine the health risk of exposure to these waters. The water quality standard mandated by the EPA to open and close beaches in the U.S. is based on these bacteria.

While not harmful on their own account, E. coli and Enterococcus are both types of fecal bacteria that can indicate the presence of more dangerous microorganisms and viruses. Fecal bacteria are found primarily in the intestinal tracts of mammals and birds, and are released into the environment through human and animal feces.

Fecal pollution at beaches could come from pets and wildlife, human sewage leaks or spills, and storm water runoff (especially in locations where sanitary sewers and storm sewers are combined). If the levels of indicator bacteria are high, then there are likely to also be other contaminants in the water found in human or animal feces that could make people sick, generally with skin rashes or gastro-intestinal symptoms.

Why are we testing beach water?

A) To provide information on the safety of swimming and surfing at the beaches in our community.

Surfrider volunteers can collect samples from beaches that are not covered by city or state monitoring programs, or during times when no one else is testing, i.e. during the off-peak winter season. Some chapters sample the same beaches as their local agencies, but stagger their sampling times. For instance if the Department of Health samples only on Mondays, then the chapter collects samples on Thursday or Friday.

B) Education

We encourage all who are interested, including but not limited to high school, college students, and other youth groups to learn more about environmental science and local water quality and pollution issues. Participating in water testing programs is also educational for adult volunteers.

C) Motivate a movement of care for our coasts

BWTF volunteers often become advocates for the beaches and watersheds they are monitoring and are inspired to make changes at their schools, homes and businesses to decrease their impact on local waterways.

D) Increase public awareness of local water quality issues

We let our community know about the areas where pollution is detected and bring our concerns to local officials and environmental agencies.

E) Solve water quality problems, prevent pollution

BWTF volunteers often try to determine what is causing the pollution when their water samples consistently test high for bacteria.

Do I need any formal science training or previous experience to be a part of this program?

No. The water testing methods used by the BWTF can be mastered by most after a few trial runs with a BWTF committee leader or coordinator.

Can I get sick or otherwise harmed from performing these water tests?

Probably Not. It is recommended that everyone puts on plastic gloves before handling a water sample. This prevents any cross contamination of bacteria from your hands to the water and vice versa. Washing your hands with an anti-bacterial soap after sampling and when you are finished in the laboratory will also ensure that you don’t expose yourself to any bacteria that may or might not be in your samples. It is also recommended that you proceed with caution on slippery ground and rough surf so as to not fall into the water.

In general, it is also recommended for your safety that you take a shower after swimming in the ocean or digging in the sand, to rinse away any potential contaminants that might be in the water. USGS lab experiments have shown that submerging one’s hands four times in clean water removes more than 99% of the E. coli and associated viruses from the hands.

How much time is required of the volunteers?

It depends on how many beaches are sampled. It could take as little as thirty minutes to collect the water samples and bring them to the lab or upwards to 3 hours. Each sample takes less than 10 minutes to prepare in the laboratory once you’ve mastered the procedure. Somebody (whether it’s you or someone else) will also needs to return to the lab the next day to read the results and enter the data on the BWTF website (usually less than 30 mins).