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Beach Report 2018–19 Summer Highlights Report

Mount Martha Beach. Source: EPA Victoria

The beaches around Port Phillip Bay are used for recreational activities like swimming and boating, particularly throughout summer.

Environment Protection Authority Victoria (EPA) runs the Beach Report program, which forecasts and monitors water quality for recreation at 36 beaches around Port Phillip Bay during the summer season. Water quality is determined by levels of bacteria in the water, which can indicate an increased risk of disease for people coming into contact with the water.

This summer’s Beach Report period ran from 1 December 2018 to 11 March 2019.  

Fast Facts

  • Based on weekly sampling over the summer, 97 per cent of beaches met end-of-season long term water quality objectives for swimming.
  • 76 per cent of the water forecasts issued over summer were Good, 18 per cent Fair and seven per cent Poor (in 2017-18, 76 per cent were Good, 13 per cent Fair and 11 per cent Poor). Forecasts are based on observed and forecast weather, storm warnings, water quality history, weekly water sampling results and current pollution alerts issued. 
  • Two swim advisories were issued over the summer (when Beach Report sampling detected high bacterial levels).
  • Four water quality alerts were issued over the summer (when EPA received reports of pollution or algal blooms at beaches).
  • Forecasts were provided to over 8,600 followers on Twitter.
  • Over 10,000 people subscribed to water quality SMS alerts to receive notifications about Poor water quality forecasts.

How did our beaches perform?

Beach Report monitoring was performed every Tuesday at 36 beaches over the summer months. This monitoring is used to assess whether sites have met Victoria’s water quality objectives for swimming at the end of the season. For 2018-19, 97 per cent (34 out of 35) of beaches around Port Philip Bay met the water quality objectives for swimming. Usually Beach Report sampling assesses 36 beaches against water quality objectives, however due to unsafe sampling conditions at Portsea Beach, not enough samples were collected to allow assessment.

Mornington Beach did not meet the recreational water quality objective at the end of the season. This does not mean Mornington Beach was unsafe for swimming the whole season, but it did experience a higher number of days with poorer water quality, which can increase the risk of swimmers being exposed to disease-causing bacteria and other pathogens (e.g. a virus, bacterium, or other microorganisms). The Mornington sampling site is located very near to Tanti Creek mouth so may be more susceptible to stormwater pollution if there have been even small amounts of rain.

Beach water quality has remained stable in recent years

Table 1: Results of water quality monitoring at beaches in Beach Report program

Years

 Percentage of beaches meeting swim objectives in previous summers

2018-19

 97%

2017-18

 97%

2016-17

 97%

2015-16

 97%

2014-15

 94%

Water quality has been generally suitable for swimming in recent years. While generally suitable for swimming, bacterial water quality can be impacted during and after heavy rain (see ‘Swim advisories and other water quality alerts issued over summer’ section for more information about these events). 

What information do we gather and report about beaches?

The information we report on during the summer months includes the following:

  • Water quality forecasts: 
    • Reported twice daily on the website and through Twitter.
    • Forecasts of Good, Fair or Poor are given for each beach to help Victorians make decisions about using the water for recreational use.
    • Reports are based on weather forecasts, observations and warnings, water quality history, and weekly water sampling results.
    • On weekends, signs at life saving clubs show forecasts.
  • Weekly water quality monitoring:
    • Samples are analysed for the presence of a group of bacteria called enterococci. Enterococci are an indicator of faecal pollution that could cause water to be unsafe for recreational use.
    • If it’s considered not safe to swim due to increased risk of exposure to bacteria and pathogens, the public is notified on the website, Twitter and through a media release. Signage at the affected beach is put up by the local council during the week.
    • EPA works with bayside councils and water authorities to investigate the source of water pollution.
    • Water quality samples are used to assess whether the site has met the end-of-season water quality objectives for swimming.
  • Alerts about pollution incidents, fish deaths and algal blooms:
    • Water quality alerts are given all year round.
    • Alerts are based on reports from the community, businesses and government, EPA or other responding agency.

Pollution can be reported at any time to EPA on 1300 EPA VIC (1300 372 842).

How accurate were Beach Report water quality forecasts?

The accuracy of Beach Report forecasts was measured by comparing bacterial water quality sampling results at beaches to the corresponding morning forecasts (10am) on the same day.  

This summer:

  • 97 per cent of forecasts provided appropriate advice about whether it was safe to swim. That is, when actual water quality was Good EPA issued either Good or Fair forecasts. When water quality was Poor EPA issued either Poor or Fair forecasts.
  • 97 per cent of Good and Poor forecasts correctly predicted the actual water quality.
  • Forecasting occasionally misses poor water quality. Of the 25 Poor water quality samples over the summer, thirteen samples were taken on days EPA issued a Good forecast. This equates to <3 per cent of total forecasts issued. The other samples were issued a Fair rating, which is considered an appropriate rating to protect health as it advises caution.
  • Forecasting can provide false alarms. Of the Good water quality samples over the summer, <1 per cent were issued with Poor forecasts.

For more information on how we generate forecasts and the accuracy of our forecasting go to Generating forecasts for Beach Report and Yarra Watch.

Water quality and health for swimmers

Increased risk of illness occurs when water is contaminated with human or animal faeces. Beach Report monitors enterococci at beaches, bacteria that are an indicator of faecal pollution.  Faeces may carry any number of disease-causing organisms (pathogens), with gastroenteritis being the most common illness experienced by swimmers.

In wet weather, stormwater drains can carry all kind of pollution from residential and industrial areas to the beach. The level of pollution, including human and animal faeces, in stormwater can vary according to the duration and intensity of rain, and depends on land use or activities in the catchment that flows to a beach.

Studies in previous summers have found human and animal faecal contamination at Port Phillip Bay beaches or in stormwater drains:

  • Human faecal contamination was found at seven beaches in the 2016-17 summer, in the week following a storm on 29 December 2016. Bird faecal contamination was also found at five of the beaches sampled.
  • Analyses conducted on samples from Elwood, Altona and Frankston beaches during the 2017-2018 season showed that human sources of contamination contributed about 13% on average of the total faecal contamination at these beaches. Faecal contamination from dogs was dominant in Altona, while birds contributed most of the faecal contamination in Frankston.

The extent of human faecal contamination at Port Phillip beaches or stormwater drains is comparable to studies in other parts of the world.

High pathogen levels in stormwater run-off and river discharge can be caused by sewer and septic tank leaks, cross-connections between sewage and drainage systems, litter and animal faecal waste (for example, bird and dog droppings) entering drains and rivers. Additionally, following heavy rain events, sewage overflows from emergency relief structures increase pathogen levels in stormwater drains, rivers and the Bay.

In dry weather, potential sources of faecal contamination at beaches include:

  • sewage spills

  • sediment from stormwater pollution that may contain pathogens, is re-suspended in water by strong onshore winds

  • leaking sewer infrastructure (particularly where it overlies the stormwater drainage system)

  • leaks from toilet facilities and septic tanks

  • sewage/wastewater treatment plant discharges

  • cross connection between sewage and drainage systems

  • bather shedding (faecal bacteria shed from the body during bathing/swimming activity)

  • boat sewage discharge

  • animal faeces

  • decomposing seagrass/seaweed with bird faeces attached

Increased levels of enterococci, the bacterial indicator of faecal contamination, can be expected as a result of these inputs, however from historical data, elevated concentrations are usually short-lived (48 hrs).

What can influence water quality and forecasts during summer?

During rain, pollutants wash down stormwater drains and out into the Bay, which increases the risk of swimming at nearby beaches.

When rain occurred, Beach Report informed the public by issuing a water quality forecast of Poor, advising the public to avoid swimming near stormwater outlets, rivers and creeks for 24 to 48 hours after rain had stopped. This advice is based on 16 years of Beach Report monitoring data (Table 2).  Poor water quality can last for longer than 48 hours, but this is rare and more likely after a large storm. This season, extended periods of Poor forecasts were mainly issued to specific beaches following pollution or algal bloom events.

Table 2: Time taken for enterococci results to return to below the short-term human-health-related trigger level. Results below collate Beach Report data from between 2000-2016 (over 8000 samples).

24 hrs

48 hrs

72 hrs

96 hrs

Percentage of weekly samples returning below short-term human health related trigger over time.

82%

15%

2.5%

0.5%

Swim advisories and other water quality alerts issued over summer

There were two swim advisories issued for Port Phillip Bay beaches this summer. Swim advisories are issued if there are high bacterial levels during dry weather. This is when people are more likely to use the beaches for swimming and when pollution would not be expected (as there is no rain). Swim advisories are based on the weekly sampling at 36 beaches.

When EPA issued advisories, it worked with councils to put signs up at beaches while an investigation was conducted. Investigations concluded that advisories during dry weather could have been caused by sediment from stormwater pollution containing bacteria, that was resuspended in the water by strong onshore winds.

The two swim advisories issued were:

  • 19 December 2018, St Kilda Beach
  • 27 February 2019, Seaford Beach

There were two water quality alerts issued for pollution that could have impacted beach water quality. These were based on reports received by EPA from the public and businesses:

  • A pollution alert was issued on 10 January 2019 due to a sewer spill from a drain on to Brighton Beach. Brighton Beach was also forecast as Poor during this time. This was upgraded to Fair then Good when sampling results showed the Beach Report sampling site near Brighton Life Save Club had safe levels of enterococci. EPA worked with the local council to investigate the ongoing fluctuations in bacterial levels in the drain. The source of pollution could not be determined.
  • A pollution alert was issued for Mornington Beach when a brown-coloured discharge was reported flowing from a stormwater drain into Port Phillip Bay. South East Water attended the site, and the alert was removed when they confirmed there was no longer a sign of discharge.

Water quality alerts are usually removed after the pollution, dead fish or algal bloom can no longer be detected or are no longer visible.

Pollution discharges to the bay can be difficult to investigate as EPA relies on timely reports from the public and for the pollution to still be occurring when EPA officers arrive at the scene. Pollution should be reported to the EPA hotline on 1300 EPA VIC (1300 372 842).

Forecasting algal blooms in the Bay

Algae are present year-round in the Bay but can become algal blooms in the days or weeks after heavy rains that carry an increased nutrient load into the Bay and weather conditions are favourable. Nutrients are chemicals, specifically nitrogen and phosphorus and are a food source for some algae. Algal blooms can cause skin irritation. Occasionally, blooms may include one or more toxin-producing species. These can cause harm primarily through the consumption of seafood (particularly shellfish) that have been exposed to the bloom.

EPA also has the capability to provide general forecasts during high risk periods for algal blooms in the Bay. This is based on algae data from monitoring equipment on the Spirit of Tasmania II, and using information on river inflows and air temperature.

Two algal bloom alerts were issued this summer for Bay beaches. An algal bloom alert was issued on 18 December 2018 for Beaumaris Beach. The bloom was small and dispersed in following days. A second alert was issued on 31 January 2019 for Hobsons Bay. Sampling determined algae would affect shellfish and the alert was updated to discourage people from eating affected shellfish. Several beaches were also forecast Fair during the bloom as water quality was affected. The alert was removed when the bloom dispersed.

Water quality signs at Port Phillip Bay beaches

Water quality forecast sign at Mordialloc Life Saving Club. Source: EPA Victoria

EPA has partnered with Life Saving Victoria to continue showing water quality forecast signs at more beaches around Port Phillip Bay.

In 2018-19, all 28 life saving clubs in Port Phillip Bay displayed water quality signage. The signs inform beachgoers of water quality forecasts and other water conditions for swimming.

Future directions

EPA Beach Report will continue to work with bayside councils, Life Saving Victoria, water authorities and other parts of government to improve the delivery of Beach Report communication and to protect recreational water quality at Port Phillip Bay beaches. EPA Victoria is striving to improve communication methods to provide the most effective, timely and readily accessible forecasts.

EPA Beach Report will continue to trial and apply new technology and techniques to provide rapid communication about bacterial levels in the water, and to better understand and tackle faecal pollution.

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