Bacteria Are Fouling the Water off NJ’s Beaches, Advocates Warn. It’s from Leaking Septic Systems, Farms and More

JON HURDLE | JULY 24, 2020 

NJ Spotlight

Sea Isle City, where the EPA standard was topped on one day last year

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About a third of New Jersey beaches had water containing fecal bacteria that exceeded a federal health standard on at least one day last year, a coalition of environmental groups said on Thursday.

In a report based on data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the groups said 73 out of 222 beaches tested in 2019 sometimes exceeded the agency’s “Beach Action Value,” a level at which 32 out of every 1,000 swimmers can be expected to get sick from bacteria in the water.

The worst affected in New Jersey were Beachwood Beach West near Toms River and Barnegat Light Beach on Long Beach Island, each of which exceeded the EPA standard on nine days last year. Woodward Beach in Brick topped the limit on eight days.

Less-badly affected were the beaches in Sea Isle City at 40th Street and in Atlantic City at Virginia Avenue, each of which topped the EPA standard on one day last year.

Still, 148, or about two-thirds, of the beaches tested had no days over the standard, or “exceedances,” according to the report, which covered beach pollution nationwide. The New Jersey results measured the presence of enterococcus, a kind of bacterium found in the human gut or bowel.

The report, which was released nationally for the second year but in New Jersey for the first time, blamed overflowing or leaking septic systems, and runoff from roads, parking lots and farms for the water pollution that affects some New Jersey beaches.

Bay beaches worse affected than those on the ocean

Bay beaches are worse affected than those on the ocean side because they are more vulnerable to runoff, said the report, titled “Safe for Swimming — Pollution at Our Beaches and How to Prevent It.”

“Our bays see a persistent number of pollution exceedances because they effectively serve as a massive stormwater basin,” said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey, one of the groups contributing to the report.

It’s hard to say whether New Jersey’s beaches are cleaner or dirtier than in previous years, based on the new report, because of differences in sites sampled, he said, but noted that the degree of pollution is directly related to the number and intensity of rain events — both of which are forecast to increase as the climate changes.

“The level of bacteria in our beach water is directly related to the number of rain events that wash runoff pollution into our beach water, especially in our bays,” O’Malley said.

Whether beachgoers can expect any change in the number of “exceedance” days this year will depend largely on the number of rainstorms that affect the beaches, he said.

“The rainier it is at the shore, the more pollution exceedances we will likely see,” O’Malley said. “Even if a beach is open, right after a rainstorm is when the most amount of runoff pollution will have been flushed into the waters.”

Advocates for upgraded water infrastructure have long urged state and local governments to replace ageing pipework including combined sewer overflows, which are designed to carry both sewage and stormwater to treatment plants, but which often overflow into waterways during rainstorms. Environmental groups are also calling for the construction of more “green infrastructure” such as rain gardens, which allow rain to soak naturally into the soil rather than running off from developed areas where it mixes with contaminants.

Billions of gallons of untreated sewage

According to Jersey Water Works, a collaborative that works to improve water infrastructure, overflowing sewers dump 7 billion gallons of untreated sewage into the state’s waterways each year. The group estimates that the state needs to spend $25 billion on upgrading supply pipes, sewers and storm drains over the next 20 years. The New Jersey League of Conservation Voters estimates it would cost $40 billion to upgrade wastewater treatment plants, overhaul combined sewer overflows, and make drinking water improvements.

Some of the cost could be met if Congress approves four appropriations bills, which would provide an extra $11 billion for water infrastructure nationwide — on which the House is due to vote on Friday. If divided equally between 50 states, that would give New Jersey $220 million, O’Malley said, but he argued that the Garden State is entitled to more than some larger landlocked states because of its long coastline and tightly packed population.

Whatever funding comes New Jersey’s way, it should be used to repair water-detention basins and combined sewer overflows, as well as investing in green infrastructure, O’Malley said.

He also called for the creation of stormwater utilities under a law that allows municipalities to invest in water infrastructure like rain gardens, a proposal that has been resisted by some coastal counties, he said.

Some other environmental groups told state lawmakers on Thursday that water infrastructure renewal should be part of an economic initiative that would help the state recover from the COVID-19 pandemic in a way that recognizes the need to build a green economy.

“At this challenging time in our state’s history, we need to make the right choices and build the economy of the future rather than rebuild the economy of the past,” said Tom Gilbert, campaign director for the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, before the Assembly’s Special Committee on Infrastructure and Natural Resources.

Cleaner than in the late 1980s

According to Environment America, which compiled the beach report, coastal areas developed 3.6 million acres from 1996 to 2010, and lost 982,000 acres of wetlands and millions of acres of forest. Of some 3,100 beaches sampled for the new report, 385 were potentially unsafe for swimming on 25% of the days that the sampling took place.

Despite the contamination on some New Jersey beaches, the water there is generally cleaner than it was in the late 1980s when many beaches were closed for weeks because of pollution, said Cindy Zipf, executive director of Clean Ocean Action, a nonprofit.

“Water quality really depends on all of us, and residents can help by getting involved in protecting your local waterway,” she said.

According to the Department of Environmental Protection, there have been no beach closures in New Jersey because of water quality concerns so far this season.

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