How often is the water unsafe to swim in?


Some local swimming spots have not recorded any violations of the unsafe bacteria standards in the past two years

Summer of course means swimming.

But when it comes to bacteria spoiling warm-weather fun, not all of the state’s 1,000-plus freshwater and ocean beaches are created equal, according to the Massachusetts Environmental Public Health Tracking website. Some beaches are closed more often than others due to unsafe bacteria levels in the water.

Beaman Pond in Templeton and Dunn Pond in Gardner were closed to swimming on Monday, July 8. Residents are advised to check online to see which ponds are open for swimming before packing up and heading to the beach.

State law requires all beaches to be regularly tested for bacteria and closed when contamination levels are too high for swimming. Swimming in bacteria-infested water can lead to illnesses including nausea, sore throats, earaches, rashes or fevers.

Which beaches in Northcentral Massachusetts are most often closed?

Locally, the two ponds in Gardner and Templeton were likely closed to swimmers.

Of the six local beaches, four had no violations in the summer of 2023: Lake Dennison in Winchendon, Asnacomet Pond in Hubbardston, Crocker Pond in Westminster and Queen Lake in Phillipston. Water samples at each beach were tested for E. coli and enterococci at least 14 times between May and August.

By comparison, Beaman Pond in the Otter River State Forest in Baldwinville had unsafe enterococci levels detected 11 times, and Dunn Pond in Gardner had four enterococci violations during the 2023 summer swimming months.

The previous year showed similar results. No violations were reported at Asnacomet Pond, Queen Lake or Crocker Pond in 2022. Three violations were recorded at Lake Dennison.

Dunn Pond and Beaman Pond had twelve and eight violations, respectively, between May and August 2022.

Why are the beaches in Massachusetts closed?

Most beaches are considered unsafe for swimming when tests show levels of Enterococci or E. coli exceed state limits on two consecutive days. Some beaches with a history of multiple days of exceedances may be forced to close after a single test shows unacceptable levels of bacteria.

Officials can close beaches to swimming for reasons not related to bacteria, such as harmful algae blooms, poor water visibility, strong currents and other physical or chemical hazards.

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State officials remind residents that just because a lake or pond is closed to swimming, it doesn’t mean the public can’t go to the beach for other activities. While it’s not quite the same without being able to get in the water, people can still participate in safe recreational beach activities, including picnicking, playing volleyball and soccer, and sunbathing.

When do closed beaches normally reopen?

Beaches will remain closed until laboratory test results show that bacteria levels are back within an acceptable range for safe swimming in the water. Because it takes about 24 hours for water samples to be tested, beaches are typically closed for at least a day or two after a breach.

How often are beaches tested?

State inspectors take water samples from lakes and ponds for testing during the summer swimming season, which runs from late May to late August. Depending on the beach, water may be tested daily to monthly, but most beaches test once a week.

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The frequency of testing depends on the likelihood that the beach has water quality problems. Beaches with low usage or with little or no water quality problems are tested less often. Beaches with high usage or with historical water quality problems are tested more often.

How do bacteria end up in beach water?

Officials say bacteria can enter lakes and ponds in a number of ways, including through rainwater runoff, failing or malfunctioning septic tanks, overflowing sewers, leaking sewage pipes, feces from wild animals and pets, and agricultural waste.

State officials also say the public can play a role in keeping their local beaches safe for swimming. Tips include cleaning up after pets, using public restrooms, picking up and disposing of trash properly, and staying out of the water if you’re not feeling well. Also, don’t feed the birds, as this only encourages them to hang out on the beach, increasing the risk of droppings in the water.