Asbury Park Press, 10/7/2007
Swim Bans Decline
Talk about unusual.
This beach season featured the biggest Memorial Day weekend algae bloom of its kind in years, and a release of partially treated wastewater from the Asbury Park sewage treatment plant.
It also included a record number of menhaden fish kills in Monmouth County estuarine waters and possibly the largest debris wash-up of its kind in 20 years — in Ocean County.
Meanwhile, officials did not have to close any ocean beaches to swimming because of high bacteria levels. But four beaches in southern Monmouth County were closed at least 20 times as a precaution following rain, according to state data.
Those beaches are near the outfall from polluted Wreck Pond.
“I think we had a great year,” said Virginia Loftin, a research scientist in the state Department of Environmental Protection who oversees the state-county-local Cooperative Coastal Monitoring Program. “Water quality was excellent.”
Some activists disagree. Cynthia A. Zipf, who heads Clean Ocean Action, a Sandy Hook-based coalition, called the summer “dismal for the coast.”
“There was a stark increase in pollution incidents with a lackluster response from most officials,” she wrote in an e-mail. “This is discouraging and demands meaningful response.”
The Jekyll-and-Hyde season had both highs and lows, and activists want the state to improve its beach-water monitoring program and water quality standards, as well as increase efforts to reduce pollution.
Water testing “should be done as often as it can possibly be done,” said Scott Thompson, a surfer who lives in Rumson and founded the PaddleOut.org group of about 50 surfers.
“We’re out there all year long,” said John Weber of Bradley Beach, Northeast regional manager for the Surfrider Foundation, an environmental group. “Let’s have a system that recognizes . . . beaches are open all year long.”
Bob Connell, chief of the DEP Bureau of Marine Water Monitoring, said he thinks the state has a “pretty extensive program right now.”
“We have to look at what’s practical to do,” Connell said.
If the state had unlimited resources, it could do unlimited monitoring, DEP Commissioner Lisa P. Jackson said.
She still thinks New Jersey’s beach-water testing program is a “national model,” she said.
But, Jackson said, all officials who respond to floating debris under the multi-agency Floatables Action Plan need to get together “to look at whether or not it’s time” to make any changes.
“Let the public come in, bring their concerns to us,” she said. “We need to do that kind of work always.
“New Jersey’s beaches are beautiful, and New Jersey’s people love their beaches, and we should build on that love for the beaches,” not scare people away, Jackson said.
“I don’t think that anyone to my knowledge expressed hyperbole” regarding this beach season’s events, Zipf said.
This beach season, officials banned swimming at ocean beaches a total of 89 times — each for one day, according to DEP data. That’s down from 97 swimming bans last year.
All but five of this year’s bans were precautionary ones at the Brown Avenue and York Avenue beaches in Spring Lake and The Terrace and Beacon Boulevard beaches in Sea Girt.
Officials ban bathing at those beaches when it rains at least 0.1 inches because of their proximity to Wreck Pond, which is in Spring Lake and Sea Girt.
Four beaches in Brick and Toms River were closed to swimming on Sept. 2 after a wash-up of grease balls, tampon applicators, syringes, wood and plastics.
Officials also prohibited swimming as a precaution at the Cedar Avenue beach in Allenhurst on June 5 as a result of the Asbury Park sewage plant spill.
“Bacterially, this was the best summer we’ve had,” said William Simmons, environmental health coordinator in the Monmouth County Health Department.
But it had “the most fish kills and also had the biggest diatom” algae bloom in years, Simmons said.
The bloom turned waters brown in Raritan and Sandy Hook bays and off the Monmouth County oceanfront around Memorial Day weekend. It was natural but augmented by nutrients in runoff, Simmons said.
Under the Cooperative Coastal Monitoring Program, health officials sample waters at ocean, bay and river beaches on Mondays, and results are available in 24 hours.
If levels of fecal bacteria exceed a state standard at a beach on Monday, officials take more samples on Tuesday. Results come back on Wednesday, and if bacteria counts remain high, officials close the beach until counts drop to acceptable levels.
“That way we know the beaches are safe on Wednesday . . . and that’s pretty much it,” Weber said.
“If they’re going to test any day, it should be Friday,” he said.
Even better, the water should be tested both weekly and after it rains, Weber said.
And if a single beach-water sample has high levels of bacteria, it makes sense to put out an advisory at the affected beach, he said.
New Jersey’s beach-water monitoring program was “cutting edge” and a national model when it was introduced, Weber said.
“But it’s not cutting edge any more,” he said. “I don’t feel it’s keeping up with the times. I feel . . . we could be doing better.”
Loftin said “we are trying to monitor at the time that we think that coastal sewage treatment plants are under the most stress . . . so that’s why we chose Monday morning” for weekly sampling during the beach season.
“At this time, we don’t post advisories” at beaches, she said.
“However . . . we do have some beaches that are closed automatically following rainfall, and those are beaches that we know are affected by stormwater after rainfall,” Loftin said.
And under state rules, sampling will be done after significant rainfall — enough to have “manholes popping,” she said.
That doesn’t happen very often, Loftin said.
“I would call 2007 a good year for the ocean beaches, excluding Wreck Pond,” according to an e-mail from Michael J. Kennish, a research professor at Rutgers University’s Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences.
But the garbage wash-up in September was “terrible, quite honestly,” he said in an interview.
“We don’t want to have an environment where we have garbage rolling up to the beaches,” Kennish said.
Thompson, of PaddleOut.org, said he thinks that for the most part, water quality at the beaches was fair this season.
But he thinks “somebody at the DEP was asleep at the switch” regarding the Labor Day weekend wash-up, said Thompson, a manufacturing executive.
One day last week, a lot of floatable debris, including plastics and tampon applicators — “all of the regular funky stuff” — was on the beach at Seven Presidents Oceanfront Park in Long Branch, where he went surfing, he said.
The park does “a good job of cleaning it up,” he said.
“It becomes their problem when it ends up on the beach, and it shouldn’t be in the water and it shouldn’t get up there,” Thompson said.
The DEP works within the multiagency Floatables Action Plan, and the DEP’s Clean Shores program picks up “a huge amount of trash off our beaches,” and the Army Corps of Engineers “skims enormous amounts of trash” from the water, Loftin said.
About 80 percent of the combined sewer overflows in northern New Jersey have net devices to capture debris, but none of New York’s overflow points has controls on floatables, according to DEP officials.
However, New York City has hoods on catch basins that, when properly installed and maintained, remove a high percentage of floatable debris, a federal official said in a May interview.
Sewage and stormwater runoff spew into waterways from about 450 combined sewage and stormwater outfalls in New York City and 250 in northern New Jersey, according to a New York/New Jersey Harbor Estuary Program fact sheet on the Web.
Every time it rains heavily, “there’s an enormous amount of trash that enters the waterways, so we do the very best we can to try and collect it, to visually observe the waterways,” Loftin said.
Still, “occasionally, this stuff does wash up,” she said.
She thinks the issue is “we have to start addressing it at its source,” she said.
Wolf Skacel, assistant DEP commissioner of compliance and enforcement, said “the real problem is people. You need to change people’s behavior.”
Every day, people use streets, storm sewers and catch basins as “places to dump their trash,” Skacel said.
“You see them dumping their cigarettes” and not picking up their dogs’ feces, he said.
“Until people change, you’re never going to see an end to these kinds of problems,” he said.