Water at beaches broke federal health guidelines 35 times last year, report says

On eve of holiday weekend, report writers call for curbing contaminated stormwater
Credit: (https://environmentnewjersey.org)
File photo

New Jersey’s beaches were potentially unsafe for swimming because of contaminated stormwater at least 35 times last summer, a coalition of environmental groups said Thursday, in an annual report on the eve of this year’s July 4 holiday weekend.

The report, titled “Safe for Swiming?“ showed instances when bacteria levels exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency’s “Beach Action Value” at which 32 out of 1,000 swimmers will get sick. Most of the affected beaches were on the bay side of the barrier islands.

The worst affected site was the 5th Ave. Bay Front Beach at Seaside Park Borough. At that site, bacteria levels were above the safety threshold on 47% of the days tested last year, more than any other of the 210 testing sites in the state.

The tests also resulted in 12 days of beach closures at the Seaside Park site. And Beachwood West Beach in Beachwood was recorded via New Jersey data as having one time at which levels exceeded safety standards before it was closed last July to investigate further pollution sources.

“One day of a beach closing is too many. We need to keep our beaches safe for swimming by working with Shore towns to build the infrastructure that will keep the water clean,” said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey, one of the groups behind the report. “The Shore is packed especially in a heat wave, and we want to ensure the cleanest possible water quality.”

O’Malley said last year’s report is not necessarily a guide to which beaches may be unsafe this year and is not intended to “shame” any particular town.

“We are putting the data out there so that the public knows how many exceedances there were,” he said.

Problem on bay beaches

Like the Seaside Park site, many instances of water levels exceeding the federal standards occurred on bay beaches rather than the ocean side of the Jersey Shore.

“This problem is on the bayside only,” said Seaside Park Mayor John Peterson, referring to his own town. “Seaside Park’s ocean beaches are all clean, safe and open. We have had some trouble recently at one bayside beach at 5th Avenue, which we suspect is related to the state’s newly installed stormwater pumping stations.

“We have reached out to all of the agencies involved and environmental groups for assistance and would welcome a collaborative effort to solving the problem,” he said.

Other New Jersey beaches found potentially unsafe for swimming at least twice in 2020 included those in Long Beach Township (bay beach), Surf City (bay beach), Lavallette (bay beach), Wildwood, Sea Isle City and Cape May. The monitoring with exceedances included 10 testing locations in nine separate towns.

The report was published by Environment New Jersey, Save Barnegat Bay, Surfrider Foundation, Clean Ocean Action, and the New Jersey Sierra Club.

No beach closures so far

John Weber, mid-Atlantic manager for the Surfrider Foundation, said water quality at beaches depends on so-called point-source pollution such as sewage treatment plants — which could be upgraded with extra investment — as well as so-called nonpoint pollution such as nutrient-rich runoff from private lawns and farm fields.

“The nonpoint-source lane to safer swimming waters depends on thousands of decisions made by individual property owners, like when a homeowner decides to install an Ocean Friendly Garden, or when a municipality decides to reduce its stormwater runoff through a low-impact development ordinance,” Weber said.

O’Malley said the group bases its report on data from the federal EPA rather than from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection because the report is part of a national data set. But he noted that the two agencies’ data paint similar pictures of the water quality at New Jersey’s beaches.

For its part, the DEP publishes up-to-date water-quality reports on its website. They show there have been no exceedances and no beach closures so far this season.

Ahead of Memorial Day weekend, the DEP said in its annual State of the Shore report that the state’s beaches were in good shape and the water quality “excellent.”

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