A day at the beach or a day at the doctor’s? Doing our part to keep beaches clean
by Sadie Beaton
Safe, clean beach water at Sandy Cove, Nova Scotia. Photo courtesy of Joanne Cook.
Whether enjoying a refreshing swim, relaxing on the sand, watching birds, or surfing the waves- for many Nova Scotians, it isn’t really summer until we’ve had a day at the beach. Though it is easy to take for granted, clean coastal water is essential to our enjoyment of the shoreline – ensuring that a day at the beach doesn’t turn into a day at the doctor’s office. It is also vital to ecosystem health, supporting the feeding, nesting and mating habits of all kinds of creatures - from the tiniest beach fleas and bristle worms, to visiting piping plovers and arctic terns, and even scurrying racoons and muskrats.
Water pollution affecting our beaches can come from many sources, from our activities at sea or on the sand, to choices we make at home or work every day. This is because, despite appearances, the beach system doesn’t stop where the sand ends. Our precious beaches are part of a much larger coastal watershed, which begins far away at the head waters of a stream or river, and ends up in the ocean. As water flows through this complex and dynamic system, it easily picks up pollutants and carries them along, often all the way out to the beach where many of us like to swim.
Beach water pollution sources can include storm water discharges, runoff from farmland and forestry, and seepage from septic tanks. From the sea, beach systems can also be contaminated when the discharge of sewage and other waste and litter discarded from boats washes ashore. As a result, nasty contaminants like bacteria, sediment, nutrients, and heavy metals can dirty our beach water. This noxious waste can contaminate local shellfish populations, poison shorebirds, fish and marine invertebrates, and cause a slew of infections and illnesses for beachgoers.
The good news is that, overall, water quality at Nova Scotia beaches is thought to be high. Most of our coastal areas are well-flushed, meaning that many of the contaminants that reach the beach are readily diluted and dispersed by tides and wave action. However, these coastal systems are under mounting pressure, and are naturally vulnerable to human impacts. To continue enjoying our dazzling beaches, we all need to do our part to keep them safe and clean.
There are many easy things we can do to become better beach stewards and protect our coastal watersheds. Simply reducing our household water use, for example, can help prevent spill over in municipal water systems. In rural areas, homeowners can ensure their septic tanks are in good working order. As well, while the sea may seem vast and limitless, discarded waste from boats often impacts the shorelines. Finally, we can all be mindful that our coastal systems are sensitive, dynamic and intimately connected.
This column marks the end of a year long series of Coastlines columns exploring Nova Scotia’s unique and spectacular beach systems. Keep your eye out for the beginning of our next series in a few weeks – where we will embark on a trip up the coastal watershed, exploring our province’s diverse and fantastic fresh water systems.
Sadie Beaton is having a fabulous time researching Nova Scotia’s sandy beach systems this summer for the Ecology Action Centre. She will also be coordinating the freshwater series of Coastlines over the coming year.
Phone: (902) 442-5046
Fax: (902) 405-3716
How do you like your coast? Take action on coastal issues that matter to you. The Coastal Issues Committee meets at the EAC on the last Thursday of every month at 5:30PM.