The Shore Acres Club in Mamaroneck had one of the highest percentages of bacteria in water samples in a recent 2012 beach water quality report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
Of the samples that exceeded New York State standards, typically only 10% of samples monitored exceeded safety standards, but 32% of those at Shore Acres were contaminated.
The daily maximum bacterial standard is 104 colonies of bacteria per 100 ml for marine beaches and 235 colonies per 100 ml for freshwater beaches– a standard that many environmental groups say is too low to really protect beach goers from waterborne illnesses. According to the NRDC, the federal standard is currently being revised by the EPA, but the proposed new limits would still “make it acceptable for 1 in 28 swimmers to become ill.”
Environmental groups say that preventing waterborne illness would require a stricter, health-based standard and also much stronger methods to control polluted storm water runoff, which is generally recognized as the number one source of beach water contamination. Solutions to the runoff problem, known as “green infrastructure,” could help to diminish the runoff before it causes problems, but the data show such measures are not stopping the polluted runoff as yet.
How Does New York Determine When to Warn Visitors About Swimming?
According to the NRDC report, “when water quality monitoring reveals an exceedance of bacterial standards, the local beach authority either notifies the public or re-samples if there is reason to doubt the validity of the original sample result. Re-sampling is performed no more than 24 hours after the routine monitoring results indicated an exceedance. If the re-sample exceeds the water quality standard, a closing or advisory is issued.”
The Westchester County Health Department says that the quality of water in the Mamaroneck Harbor and Echo Bay in New Rochelle is strongly affected by heavy rainfalls which, in turn, increase polluted stormwater drain runoff. The health department bases beach closures on “the number of inches of rain on the watershed” as follows: “Greater than 1/2 inch of rain = 1 day closure; Greater than 1 inch of rain = 2 day closure; Greater than 2 inches of rain = to be determined.”
According the health department website, the beaches receiving the greatest impact are:
beaches within Mamaroneck Harbor including Harbor Island, Beach Point Club, Mamaroneck Beach and Yacht Club, Shore Acres Point Club, and Orienta Beach Club; beaches on open water in Rye including Coveleigh Club; beaches in Davenport Neck, New Rochelle, including Davenport Club and
Greentree Club; and beaches within Echo Bay, New Rochelle, including Echo Bay Yacht Club and Hudson Park Beach.
For any of these beaches, the health department recommends that if there has been rainfall, you should call in advance to confirm the beach status.
Hudson River water quality?
In a 2005 report, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) classified Hudson River waters from north of the Bronx Borough line all the way to the northern end of Columbia County as acceptable for swimming. However, this classification is based on very limited and infrequent testing for sewage contamination, the results of which are not reported to the public. The local nonprofit watchdog group Riverkeeper says that this lack of critical data means that “pollution sources and impacts cannot be identified.”
In late June, the New York State Legislature passed the Sewage Pollution Right to Know Act, which for the first time will require public reporting about unsafe water conditions–including bacterial contamination and sewage discharge. If signed by the governor, after the act goes into effect in May 2013, the public will get regular water condition reports via the press similar to ozone, pollen, and severe weather warnings.
What you can do
Check out the NRDC report to identify the available monitoring records for your favorite beaches that are accessible by zip code. Also, the EPA has created an updated beach advisory and closing map where you can access your beach by zip code to get reports.
Joyce H. Newman is an Emmy Award-winning environmental journalist, educator, and gardener. She holds a Certificate in Horticulture from The New York Botanical Garden, and is a tour guide there.