To protect public health, beach managers need to continually assess the level of potentially harmful microbes (primarily bacteria) in the water. However, traditional, culture-based testing methods take a full 24 hours to get results—preventing same-day, proactive beach closures and leaving many recreational swimmers open to sickness or infection. EPA’s Virtual Beach (VB) tool offers a solution.
Virtual Beach is a Windows desktop-based software package designed by EPA researchers that provides rapid, real-time assessments of microbial water quality with model accuracy typically exceeding 80%. Beach managers use VB to develop site-specific statistical models for predicting fecal contamination based on readily-available data, such as wind direction/speed, rainfall and cloud cover as well as wave height, water turbidity and sunlight intensity. Once a model is developed for a site using historical data, environmental information can be collected at a site in the morning, and moments later the model can produce a prediction to guide decisions about closing the beach for the day or for issuing advisories.
“Virtual Beach is a very helpful tool for Wisconsin’s coastal communities: This reliable, predictive water quality model is key to protecting health and promoting recreational enjoyment of our beaches. The model provides same-day public notifications of beach conditions at a lower cost than traditional monitoring,” said Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Secretary Cathy Stepp. “Communities that use Virtual Beach can dedicate more of their resources to locating and correcting sources of contamination and improving local beaches. The Wisconsin DNR’s partnership with EPA in the development of this practical scientific tool offers a great pay off.”
VB is used to assist in advisory issuances in the Great Lakes states and to forecast water conditions in numerous locations in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Pennsylvania, New York and Michigan. Outside of the Great Lakes region, VB has been used to develop predictive models for beaches around Boston Harbor, in Horry County, SC, and at sites in the Gulf of Mexico.