Fine Print: Delving Deeper Into Jersey Shore Water-Quality Testing

Colleen O'Dea | August 7, 2014 | Energy & Environment
Somers Point officials contend, correctly, that majority of results met or exceeded mandated safety standards for swimming beaches

Natural Resources Defense Council map shows Somers Point's New Jersey Avenue Beach.
Beach conditions in Jersey Shore communities can mean the difference between a profitable summer season and a poor one, and between happy residents, business owners and visitors and unhappy ones.

At least one Shore town, Somers Point in Atlantic County, is disputing its inclusion on a list of the 10 beaches with the greatest percentage of samples of polluted water last year.

Last Saturday, local officials held a press conference to denounce the Natural Resources Defense Council’s most recent report on beach-water quality. A NJ Spotlight analysis of that data found Somers Point’s New Jersey Avenue Beach had the fifth-highest percentage of water samples exceeding a federal pollution standard in 2013 for beaches with at least a dozen tested samples.

Here’s a look at the issue and the controversy.

The beach: Also known as William Morrow Beach, the beach is located in the Bay Front Historic District at the mouth of the Greater Egg Harbor Inlet. This is a free-admission beach, with calm water and a children’s playground. There are also summer concerts on the beach.

The report: As part of its mission to promote clean water that’s safe for swimming, the NRDC puts out an annual report summarizing all water-monitoring results, mapping the percentage of samples that exceeded federal standards and providing state-by-state based on their results.

The most recent report, “Testing the Waters 2014,” provided information for 2013 water sampling.

About water testing: According to state officials, the water at 180 ocean stations and 34 bay stations is monitored each week. Many of these are places with sewer outflow pipes, which can be the source of pollution, especially following heavy rains.

In the case of Somers Point, the Atlantic County Division of Public Health does the weekly water tests, from Memorial Day through Labor Day. It performs follow-up tests whenever a sample exceeds safety standards, repeating those tests until the water levels are safe.

New Jersey is one of 35 states and territories that gets federal funding for water testing, but the amount is only about a third of what was authorized by the federal Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act and it has been dropping slightly — the state got $260,000 in 2014, down from $274,000 in 2013.

The standard: In its report, the NRDC listed the percentage of tests that exceeded the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s Beach Action Value for enterococcus bacteria.

That value — at least 60 enterococcus bacteria colony forming units per 100 milliliters of marine water — was initially recommended by the EPA in 2012.

But use of that standard has been optional. The actual limit, which requires officials to issue an advisory to the public, is 104 units. New Jersey did not adopt the lower limit and uses the 104 standard.

Steve Fleischli, an NRDC senior attorney and director of the water program, said that while the report used the BAV, the Somers Point water samples also exceeded the current permitted limit of 104 units. The specific results, sampled by the Atlantic County Division of Public Health and provided by Somers Point, measured less than 300 on June 3, 110 on June 10, and 108 on June 11.

Why it’s important: Enterococci, a type of bacteria found in animal and human waste, is an indicator of possible contamination of bathing waters. Among the potential health effects of swimming in polluted water are stomach flu, skin rashes, pinkeye, respiratory infections, meningitis and hepatitis.

Stormwater runoff and sewage overflows are most often the cause of bacterial contamination of water. In the case of Somers Point, Harbormaster Ron Meischker said the 2013 water samples that exceeded the limit likely resulted from severe high tides which, when they recede, can pull pollutants back into the pollutants into the water.

Does a result of 14 percent of samples polluted mean a beach is dirty? Fleischli said the NRDC did not call the borough’s water quality poor, but simply reported the results. The beach had only three “actionable” samples out of 21 done last year. Its 14 percent of samples polluted is relatively small, but it fell victim to the pristine test results elsewhere in New Jersey and the national average.

The NRDC’s “Testing the Waters” report found 10 percent of the country’s 3,500 beaches exceeded the 60-unit BAV, as did 3 percent of New Jersey’s beaches. Of the 492 coastal beaches in New Jersey, 288 had at least a dozen water-monitoring samples tested; almost a third of those had no tests exceeding the BAV, while 10 of them — including Somers Point — had more than 10 percent of samples exceeding 60 enterococcus colony forming bacteria.

But that’s only one year’s results. Fleischli said it is good to look at several years’ worth of data to see if there is a pattern over time.

What about current year results? Checking those is a good idea, too.

The NJ Department of Environmental Protection’s Cooperative Coastal Monitoring Program has a website that provides that data and also maps beach closures.

The results should also be available from local health officials. In Somers Point, the latest water-monitoring results are posted at the lifeguard station and are available, along with all Atlantic County results, from the county’s Division of Health. Weekly results are accessible via the county’s website at, by calling the seasonal toll-free hotline 1-800-633-SWIM or subscribing through the county’s email notification system.

So far this year, according to county health test results provided by the borough, none of 11 water samples has exceeded 25 enterococcus bacteria colony forming units, which is far less than both the federal standard and the more stringent BAV. The county’s Ocean Water Quality Index rates any samples below 26 units as indicative of “excellent” water quality. The most recent water test, July 28, found fewer than 5 units.

What’s coming: The EPA first developed the 60-unit standard in 2012 as an optional precautionary “do-not-exceed” beach water quality threshold. But last week, the agency approved the use of the BAV by all states that get federal funding for beach monitoring. Any time beach water exceeds 60 enterococcus bacteria colony forming units, officials will have to alert the public.

The NRDC called it the “most protective swimmer safety threshold.” Several New Jersey clean water groups, including Clean Ocean Action, NY/NJ Baykeeper and Hackensack Riverkeeper, praised the action.

But that standard will only be used to alert the public. The EPA is raising its action threshold slightly to 110 units.

New Jersey, though, is going to keep the 104-unit standard because it will be more protective, said Virginia Loftin, a DEP research scientist working with the Cooperative Coastal Monitoring Program. It plans to use the 60 BAV for issuing advisories beginning next year, but if a location has 60 enterococcus bacteria units for several days in a row the state may consider ordering a closure. Currently, a single measurement exceeding 104 units warrants a notification and a retest before a beach is closed, and that policy would remain in effect.