The good news is New York Harbor is cleaner now than at any time in the last 100 years.
The bad news is intensifying rain is increasingly contaminating the city’s beaches with raw sewage and disease-causing pathogens.
If current trends continue, the city’s beaches will be closed to the public during more and more of the summer season, environmental experts told City Council members at a Committee on Parks and Recreation hearing on Tuesday.
The purpose of the hearing was to look at the city’s practices for ensuring the water is safe at area beaches, and was led by Barry Grodenchik, chair of the Committee on Parks and Recreation.
The last six years of figures from the Department of Health show that an increase in precipitation has caused greater amounts of fecal matter — otherwise known as poop — to flow into the waters in which New Yorkers swim, testified Kate Fritz, a witness for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Contamination of waterways and beaches “occurs after almost every rainfall,” Fritz said. “Raw sewage, pet waste, trash and polluted runoff wash into where people swim.”
Rain water that falls on the city’s sidewalks and streets is combined with raw sewage in the city’s underground sewer lines. During heavy storms, the stormwater exceeds the sewer pipes’ capacity, and overflows of the combined rain and sewage are released into local waterways. The released muck is known as combined sewage overflow.
Though the city is implementing strategies to reduce this overflow, an increase in intense weather has so far outpaced the city’s efforts. Rainfall rose by 44 percent in 2018 compared to 2016, Fritz said. On average, sewage overflow occurred once every three days in 2018.
Exposure to the pathogens that feast on the sewage can cause intestinal illness, rash and infection, she said.
“It was a gross year”
The Water Trails Association sampled waters off the coast all around New York City, testified Mike Dulong, senior attorney for the nonprofit Riverkeeper.
“Their 2018 results were miserable. It was gross. It was a gross year,” he said.
While the city’s records may not be clear on this point, beach closures “are directly related to sewage discharge,” Dulong told councilmembers. “Every single waterway in New York is affected by them … and there is recreation going on in every single waterway in New York City. The Department of Environmental Protection’s plans will not solve the problem.”
City beaches are categorized by the Department of Health as either “open swim,” “warning” or “closed.”
Public beaches were placed on warning on 49 days in 2018, along with one closure day, Dulong said.
“That’s more than double than what happened in 2017 — there were 22 warnings then. More than four times than 2016, when there were only 12 warnings, and there were 16 warnings in 2015,” he testified. “The difference was that 2018 saw significant amount of rainfall. From May to October, we saw 32 inches, compared to 24 inches. And so, with rainfall in New York City comes sewage.”
“These two problems are only expected to grow worse,” Dulong said. “New York City’s Panel on Climate Change expects a 1.8 percent increase in precipitation by the 2020s … and a 4 to 11 percent increase by the 2050s. In heat, we expect an increase between 4 and 5.7 degrees by the 2050s. So what we are going to see in the future is more beach warnings, more beach closures.”
Dulong said that the city’s Beach Surveillance Monitoring Report is “slightly misleading” in that it states that only a fraction of the warning days are due to wet weather.
“That’s not true. They’re all due to wet weather,” he said. “All of the pathogens, all of the pollutants that get into the water, that cause beach closures, occur during wet weather days.”
DEP: Harbor cleaner than ever
The city Department of Environmental Protection is currently working the city’s long term plan to control runoff going into the major waterways — the Hudson River, East River, Harlem River and the western portion of Long Island Sound.
According to the city’s most recent Harbor Survey Report, New York Harbor is cleaner now than at any time in the past century. Improvements to the city’s 14 wastewater treatment plants have resulted in an 80 percent reduction in combined sewer overflows since the mid-1980s, according to DEP.
DEP says it is currently working on a Citywide Long Term Control Plan to better understand how existing combined sewer overflows impact water quality throughout the harbor.
“We urge you to get engaged in that plan and we urge you to ask DEP to release that plan to the public and to the Council’s oversight before it goes to the state,” Dulong urged councilmembers.
New, stricter rules
City beaches include Brighton Beach, Cedar Grove Beach, Coney Island, Manhattan Beach, Midland Beach, Orchard Beach, Rockaway Beach, South Beach and Wolfe’s Pond Beach. It was reported that in 2018, approximately 16 million people visited these beaches, including 7.4 million visitors at Coney Island beaches and 5.5 million visitors at Rockaway beaches.
The city’s Department of Health is responsible for beach monitoring, including for the city’s 17 private beaches. Beginning one month before beach season, water samples are collected from city beaches on a weekly basis, according to Trevor McProud, director of Public Health Engineering at DOH. Rockaway and Breezy Point are tested every two weeks because of generally cleaner waters.
In particular, DOH tests water samples for enterococci, bacteria that live in the intestinal tracts of warm-blooded animals. When found in beach water, these bacteria tend to indicate possible contamination by fecal waste and could signal the potential presence of other pathogens.
“In general, the water quality in NYC beaches is acceptable to provide the health benefits in a healthy and safe manner,” McProud testified. He added, however, “It’s highly correlated with seasonal precipitation totals. Extreme rainfall has increased two to four times in the region.”
McProud said that New York State would soon be issuing revised water standards, and this would likely increase the number of beach closings.
“These were passed by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2012 and are currently being finalized. Since they are more stringent, we expect more notification days,” he told councilmembers.
“More notification days will not mean the water quality is getting worse,” he added. “It will be held to a stricter standard to allow recreational beach activities.”
According to the EPA, the new criteria use a broader definition of illness to recognize that symptoms may occur without a fever. EPA also narrowed the time period over which the results of monitoring samples may be averaged, from 90 days to 30 days. This shortened time period accounts for heavy rainfall that can cause sewer overflows.
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