Testing the waters: Beach closures highlight lax views on city surfing

August 13, 2022

First it was the shortage of lifeguards, then the shark sightings. Poor water quality last week led to the closure of beaches in Queens – with some experts saying this highlights the need for more testing to ensure swimmers’ safety.

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The National Park Service, which oversees the famous Riis Park beach on federal land, issued a 24-hour swimming ban on Aug. 4 due to high levels of bacteria found in the ocean.

“We test the water weekly, and if the levels exceed the acceptable level, testing is done daily until the levels are within the acceptable threshold of 104 cfu/100ml,” the spokeswoman wrote. NPS, Daphne Yun, in an email to THE CITY.

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CFU refers to “colony forming units”, a measure of the number of active bacteria in the water. The higher the level of bacteria, the higher the risk of bathers and swimmers getting sick.
The weekly NPS tests that revealed the high level of bacteria were carried out on August 1, although the results weren’t revealed until the next day, Yun said.

When the park service recorded two consecutive days of heavy bacteria, it closed the beach for swimming, she said.

Rockaway Beach, which is near Riis, is operated by the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation and has not closed at any time due to bacteria in the past week.

A spokesperson for the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which tests municipal water, said sampling was done at Queens Beach on August 3, but bacteria levels “were below the thresholds for a notice or closure”.

The health department said it was starting to monitor and sample water at city beaches a month before they open to the public in May. It then tests the water weekly at most beaches. But those on the Rockaway Peninsula, including private beaches at Breezy Point, are sampled twice a week, according to DOHMH.

Several experts told THE CITY they believe authorities should test the waters more often.

Sand and surf at Jacob Riis Park on August 9/Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

“If we’re going to have people on the beaches all the time, and we’re going to have this rain interspersed with climate change, we should consider testing twice a week, or more if needed on a regular basis,” Holly said. Porter-Morgan, professor of environmental science at LaGuardia Community College.

Rob Buchanan, co-founder of the NYC Water Trails Association, a nonprofit coalition of non-motorized boating groups, agreed.

“They should be testing daily on all beaches, and they should be posting those results daily,” he said.

More frequent testing could help clarify whether Riis bacteria levels were also found in Rockaway, for example. And it could help fill the information gaps that exist because it takes 24 hours to process the tests.

East Coast vs West Coast

The spokesperson for the federally run Gateway National Recreation Area said closures like this week’s at Riis Park happen “periodically” at the beach.

But experts said it’s rare for ocean-facing beaches to be closed due to bacteria, noting it’s more common on beaches along bays and sounds. The Rockaway Peninsula bounds Jamaica Bay on one side, with Riis Park and adjacent beaches on the Atlantic side.

Rob Pirani, director of the New York-New Jersey Harbor & Estuary program at the Hudson River Foundation, noted that while the waters around New York have been significantly cleared over the past few decades, there are still challenges, especially with “combined sewer overflows.”

Many New York City sewers capture both sewage and stormwater, and when it rains, this mixture often overflows into the city’s waterways.

“We should always test after even a quarter inch of rain on our beaches to make sure there are no bacteria on the beaches,” Porter-Morgan said, adding that she would personally wait three days after a overflow before returning to the water.

However, there had been no significant rainfall before the beach closed. Pirani said the bacteria elevated — enterococcus, which is an easily testable indicator of other dangerous bacteria — could also come from tidal changes.

“In general, the water flows east to west along the Atlantic coast,” he said. “But if for some reason the water was flowing more abundantly out of Jamaica Bay and the harbor and from west to east, this could also have contributed to a lower quality of water coming out of the beaches. from the city.”

Mike Dulong, senior attorney at Riverkeeper, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the Hudson, encourages beachgoers to always check public health notice before getting in the water.
NotifyNYC also provides alerts on beaches and bodies of water.

“You have to be careful because [an advisory] means it’s possible there are harmful bacteria that could make you sick, and it’s not worth going in those conditions,” he said.

To swim or not to swim

The city encourages swimming only at designated beaches due to several factors, including pollution concerns, but that hasn’t stopped intrepid New Yorkers from venturing into other waters.

Jordan Mattheisen, a graduate student in chemical biology who lives on the Upper East Side, spends much of her life in the city as a long-distance open-water swimmer.

Before launching into the waves, she looks at the city online beach water quality tracker to make sure there is no notice.

“I’m not big on looking at particular counts or pollutants or anything like that,” she said. “If it’s really stormy on a weekend, I probably won’t go to the beach. Some people swim through it and don’t seem to care too much, but I’m not as willing to risk my health. “

In a city with 520 miles of coastline, technically only 14 miles of designated beaches are approved for swimming. A combination of maritime traffic, strong currents and water quality can make swimming in ‘coastal seafronts’ and harbor unsafe, says Department of Town Planning 2021 report Full Waterfront Plan.

But when it comes to water quality, it’s not always dangerous to swim in the harbor or elsewhere – and people do.

“In most places in and out of the harbor on most days the water quality is very likely to be good enough for swimming,” said Buchanan, of the Water Trails Association. . “The harbor is a big place and it’s literally flushed twice a day with ocean water.”

The New York Triathlon, held in July, relies on testing from the city’s Environmental Protection Department to ensure athletes are safe in the swim portion of the race.

The DEP tests the water in the weeks leading up to the race and takes samples four times during the week of the event, according to spokesman Jordan Titus. Organizers are not aware of anyone who has fallen ill while swimming, Titus said.

Capri Djatiasmoro, Coney Island Brighton Beach’s open water swimmer coordinator, said the city has only twice since 2003 halted events it has been hosting. She cites abundant marine life as proof of the clean waters.

She swims almost daily but ignores advice.

“I’ve never had a problem. I never check that stuff,” she said. “I’ve never been sick in Manhattan or anywhere else.”

Mattheisen has swum in the harbor several times since moving to New York in 2017. And last month she circled Manhattan as part of the New York Open Water’s 20 bridges an event.

She said she never got sick from her bathing, although she found it “really disgusting” when she walked through trash cans. But experiences like seeing dolphins in the harbor near Brooklyn last summer made the risks — and the ick factor — worth it.

“At the end of the day, there’s a certain level of risk that you’re always going to take, but I don’t think that should stop you from trying anything in open water,” Mattheisen said. “There are ways to mitigate that risk and there are also a lot of great things that can come from swimming.”

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