Correction: This article was updated at 11:35 a.m. Monday, July 20, 2020, to correct a link.
MOREHEAD CITY — As people take to Carteret County’s beaches and waterways in near record numbers this summer amid the coronavirus pandemic, they should rest assured it is generally safe to do so, both in terms of water quality and risk of catching the virus.
Dr. Rachel Noble with the University of North Carolina’s Institute of Marine Sciences in Morehead City heads a lab conducting water quality research for nearly 20 years running. Her lab works closely with the State Recreational Water Quality Program, which tests around 50 sites throughout Carteret County for the presence of a bacteria group known as enterococcus. The higher the concentration of enterococcus, the poorer the water quality.
“Recreational water quality is a big issue and a big benefit for Carteret County when it’s good quality,” Dr. Noble told the News-Times last week. “…Water quality across Carteret County has been generally excellent all summer long.”
Water quality readings throughout the state are recorded in an online database the public can access at http://portal.ncdenr.org/web/mf/recreational-water-quality. Dr. Noble recommends checking the website for the most up-to-date reading before heading to your favorite spot for a swim.
Water quality this year has remained so good because it’s been a relatively dry summer, especially compared to the past few years, Dr. Noble explained. Stormwater runoff is one of the biggest contributing factors to poor water quality. When rain falls to the ground, it mixes with waste, fertilizers and other contaminates, then flows into a receiving body of water, like an estuary or the ocean.
“We do know that whenever we have storms, we see a degradation in the water quality, so we see water quality basically goes downhill when we have a lot of storms,” Dr. Noble said. “…So because it’s been relatively dry compared to most years on record, water quality across the sound and the ocean has been generally pretty good.”
There have been a few trouble spots, Dr. Noble pointed out, including in Beaufort’s Gallants Channel and Town Creek, which have historically struggled with poor water quality. She said her lab partners with towns to address water quality issues and work together on potential solutions.
“We’re doing some really, really good research there in collaboration with the town of Beaufort. We also have been doing work with the town of Atlantic Beach on some of their water quality questions and issues,” she said. “We’ve had a really great, historic relationship with some of the towns, and they’ve been very proactive wanting to protect their water quality.”
Dr. Noble said individuals can do their part to help preserve water quality by disposing of waste and ensuring septic systems, which a high proportion of households in Carteret County rely on, are functioning properly. She said aging sewage infrastructure also contributes to poor water quality, and her lab is working with several towns on that issue, as well.
The coronavirus pandemic and its far-reaching effects have touched even the water sampling program. Dr. Noble helped develop a water quality detection test that can turn around results in just a few hours, compared to the traditional test that takes about a day to generate a reading. But because states, including North Carolina, are funneling more money toward coronavirus relief, most places are having to rely the slower test.
“It’s not a perfect system, because if I go to the beach today and see a sign at the beach, it’s actually from a sample that was collected yesterday. It doesn’t always mean that the contamination that was there is still there,” Dr. Noble said. “But because in Carteret County we’ve seen excellent water quality over the entire summer, save for a few specific locations, we know that our overall view of the water quality has been so good that we really don’t have many concerns until this is resolved.”
For those looking to the beach as a safe spot to recreate during the pandemic, Dr. Noble said it is generally a good choice. Early research suggests ocean water is effective at inactivating the coronavirus, and the beach also offers plentiful ultraviolet light, which may also inactivate the virus. There’s ample room to spread out and socially distance, as well.
“It appears from research that’s been conducted so far, and it’s limited, but it appears that ocean-strength saltwater is really, really a great way to inactivate the virus,” she said. “The ocean poses very little risk because of the saltiness, meaning that it causes the virus to basically come apart.”
However, Dr. Noble stressed the importance of continuing to follow the advice of public health experts even at the beach, especially avoiding gathering in large groups. She said it’s still possible to catch the virus by sharing equipment, food and airspace with an infected person.
“I advocate the beach and the outdoors, but people still want to maintain their distance, they still want to try to be careful,” she said. “There’s nothing magical about the ocean. If you’re around an infected individual and you don’t know, you probably still have a solid chance of being exposed, so it makes sense for people to continue to behave or operate within their bubble and not get too overly confident.”
Contact Elise Clouser at email@example.com; by phone at 252-726-7081 ext. 229; or follow on Twitter @eliseccnt.