Health Officials: Go On In, The Water’s Fine

By: Debra Lawless

Topics: Health , Waterways

The excellent water quality at area beaches is one reason the Lower Cape is a popular destination for swimmers and sunbathers. FILE PHOTO

Good news: The fresh and salt waters of Harwich, Chatham and Orleans have remained clean and safe for swimmers all summer, according to health agents in the three towns.

“So far there have been no exceedances or failures of our beaches,” says Harwich Health Director Meggan Eldredge. “There are no complaints. Honestly, I don’t know of any last year, either.” One minor issue in 2017 was that Red River Beach had excessive amounts of seaweed for a short time. Harwich has 24 public beaches and of these, nine are freshwater ponds.

The Barnstable County Department of Health and Environment (BCDHE) tests all fresh- and saltwater beaches weekly from Memorial Day to Labor Day. In Chatham, which has 8.3 square miles of water, testing is conducted at 13 saltwater beaches and three freshwater ponds—Goose Pond, Schoolhouse Pond and White Pond Town Landing.

“We take it very seriously here in Chatham,” says Health Agent Judith Giorgio, referring to the water quality at the town’s beaches and ponds. “People come here for that. There’s nothing worse than someone coming down to vacation and getting ill from something there.”

The BCDHE test consists of a bacteriological analysis of bathing water. The BCDHE has been monitoring the Cape’s waters for over 30 years; the work expanded in 2002 as a result of amendments to the Clean Water Act. The group tests for “indicator organisms” or two types of fecal bacteria: Enterococcus in marine water, and E. coli in freshwater. If water tests positive for the bacteria, it is likely that the water contains harmful organisms and pathogens. The BCDHE notifies the town health agent and the beach is closed to swimmers until the water tests clean. If a swimmer ingests the polluted water, it can cause mild gastroenteritis with flu-like symptoms, according to the BCDHE’s website.

Now, if you were to look at the BCDHE list of Chatham’s swimming spots, you will see that as of July 23 every area tested was in compliance except for the one listed as “Cockle Cove Creek at Parking Lot.” This one has failed each test except for the one on July 9. This is an area just north of Cockle Cove Beach. The spot is permanently closed to swimming, and is not a legal beach, Giorgio says. A posted sign informs the public that it is closed to swimming.

“It’s a creek on the backside of the beach,” Giorgio says. “Not a well-flushed area.” The reason the creek continues to be tested is because “kids like to wade in there and dig.”

Swimmers’ itch, or cercarial dermatitis, is an allergic reaction to microscopic parasites in the water. While catching this red, itchy rash characterized by red bumps or blisters is more likely to occur in a freshwater pond than in the ocean, it is also possible to catch swimmers’ itch in saltwater. As pond water heats up in August, it is recommended that swimmers bathe in deeper, cooler water away from the shore and rinse after swimming. Swimmers’ itch generally clears up on its own within a few days and can be treated with an anti-itch cream. Again, the good news is that none of the three town health agents have heard reports of swimmers’ itch, which is sometimes also called “clammers’ itch,” in several years.

Another issue that comes up from time to time is red tide. This is caused by an algae bloom when certain conditions cause an explosive growth of the algae. If humans eat shellfish contaminated by the red tide they may develop a condition called paralytic shellfish poisoning that affects the human nervous system within minutes. Giorgio does not know of a local beach closed for red tide issues in recent years.

Waste commonly enters the water after storms, when storm water runs off the roads and elevates bacteria levels. The waters may become contaminated by fecal matter from pets and from wild animals such as geese, ducks, seagulls, seals and foxes.

In one way the lack of rain has helped keep the beach and pond water clean—that is by not producing storm water that enters the beaches and sends up levels of indicator organisms, says Orleans Health Agent Robert J. Canning. When such a situation does occur it is generally a brief event that does not prevent the beach from remaining open. (Beaches close after two failed tests on two consecutive days.)

Orleans has 8.5 square miles of water. There are three saltwater beaches and two freshwater ponds—Crystal and Pilgrim Lakes-- and this year there have been no closures or even complaints of health issues.

“It’s been very good,” Canning says. “Keep in mind that’s why we monitor.”

He added that because the town maintains and improves its drainage systems the water quality level remains high in swimming areas.

“I hope people are out there enjoying” the water, Giorgio says.

For the results of the most recent water quality tests in Chatham, Harwich and Orleans as well as tests going back to 2015, visit