At Jersey Shore, Stormwater Runoff Blamed for Spike in Beach Closings

Tom Johnson | June 28, 2012 | Energy & Environment
Report finds heavy rains, sewage pollution threaten ocean quality.

Jersey Shore
It wasn’t a particularly good year for beachgoers in New Jersey and the rest of the metropolitan area last year.

At least that was the finding of an annual report by the Natural Resources Defense Council on beachwater quality, which found the number of closing and beach advisory days jumped 20 percent in New Jersey last year, and nearly doubled in New York.

The spike in closings and advisories were primarily attributed to the wettest year on record, but the environmental group and other conservationists yesterday said the findings underscore how the nation’s seashores continue to suffer from stormwater runoff and sewage pollution that can make people sick and harm coastal economies.

Nearly half (47 percent) of the closings and advisories nationwide (23,481) were attributed to stormwater runoff, pollution from streets, parking lots and other areas that wash into waterways, according to the report.

In New Jersey, there were 131 closings or advisories issued, 79 percent of them blamed on stormwater runoff. Three percent of the samples tested exceeded public health standards, indicating the presence of human or animal wastes in the water, a modest tick upward from 2 percent in 2010.

The good news is that more than three-quarters of the advisories were pre-emptive in nature, meaning they were issued because of rainfall and known problems with bacterial levels. For instance, Hurricane Irene accounted for 25 pre-emptive closings in New Jersey alone.

Nonetheless, New Jersey still ranked fourth in the nation for cleanest beaches based on the number of samples exceeding national standards, ranking behind only Delaware, New Hampshire and North Carolina. Louisiana topped the list of 30 states in the number of samples exceeding public health standards at 29 percent.

“Our beaches are plagued by a sobering legacy of water pollution,” said NRDC senior attorney Jon Devine. “Luckily, today more than ever, we know that much of this filth is preventable and we can turn the tide against water pollution.’’

Doug O’Malley, interim director of Environment New Jersey, said water quality and overdevelopment top the list of concerns the public has with the Jersey Shore.

“The public is right — polluted run-off from overdevelopment remains the largest source of beach closures,” O’Malley said. “Nowhere is more threatened than Barnegat Bay, which needs a strong and timely cleanup plan to reduce run-off pollution.’’

The problems extend up into northeastern New Jersey, where most of the 254 combined sewer outflows exist, according to Debbie Mans, executive director of the NY/NJ Baykeeper. The outflows spew untreated sewage into waterways during times of heavy rainfall at a rate of 23 billion gallons a year. New York City contributes an additional 30 billion gallons, Mans said.

With many of the problems causing beach closings unresolved, clean ocean advocates called it “unconscionable” the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is proposing to zero out funding for the $10 million National Beach Monitoring program.

“The recent waste wash-up and beach closure in Long Beach Island show the devastating impact of pollution,” said Cindy Zipf, executive director of Clean Ocean Action. “That is why it is unconscionable for EPA to zero-out funding and for the state of New Jersey to lag so far behind in water protection rules.”