IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

American beaches: Just how clean is the water?

Water testing is inconsistent around the country. Can the government ensure water safety at America's beaches? NBC's Michelle Kosinski reports.

Charles Moore can tell you about dirty beaches. He nearly died after a day of surfing at California’s Seal Beach six years ago.

“I had to be treated with these antibiotics for a week in the hospital before they felt that I was safe to be released,” Moore recalls.

There had been a sewage spill that had not yet been reported.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the state with the most incidents of bacteria was Louisiana. Every beach tested there last year required an advisory or closing. Hurricane Katrina likely contributed, but the prior year had the same result.

A high percentage of Wisconsin and Texas beaches also registered contamination.

So where is the bacteria coming from? Scientists say, in big measure, from storm runoff — from ever more developed coastlines.

But, testing nationwide is inconsistent and can take at least a day to register a result.

Environmentalists say that’s too late to protect people. One group is suing the EPA this summer for not doing better.

“What the test tells you, is what was the beach like two or three days ago,” says David Beckman with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It doesn't tell you what the quality of the water is today.”

The EPA says it is working on faster tests, but that could take years.

In the meantime some states are doing more on their own. Ohio health officials are using factors such as temperature and bird count to predict if a beach might be unhealthy. 

“It's about two times as effective as compared to traditional water quality sampling methods,” says Jill Lis of the Cuyahoga County Board of Health.

Because until testing advances, American beachgoers can't be certain just what is in the water.