Objectives: Water quality communication practices vary widely and stakeholder input has not played a role in defining acceptable levels of risk. Although the 2012 Recreational Water Quality Criteria (RWQC) emphasize the importance of promptly notifying the public about hazardous conditions, little is known about the public's understanding of notifications, or about levels of risk deemed acceptable. We sought to address these gaps.

Methods: A mixed methods approach was used. Focus groups (FGs) provided qualitative data regarding the understanding of surface water quality, awareness, and use, of currently available water quality information, and acceptability of risk. Intercept interviews (INTs) at recreation sites provided quantitative data.

Results: INTs of 374 people and 15 FG sessions were conducted. Participants had limited awareness about water quality information posted at beaches, even during swim bans and advisories. Participants indicated that communication content should be current, from a trusted source, and describe health consequences. Communicating via mobile electronics should be useful for segments of the population. Risk acceptability is lower with greater outcome severity, or if children are impacted.

Conclusions: Current water quality communications approaches must be enhanced to make notification programs more effective. Further work should build on this initial effort to evaluate risk acceptability among US beachgoers.

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