Bacteria made Jersey beaches unsafe for swimming in 2020

With summer in full heat wave mode, water pollution can close New Jersey beaches or put swimmers’ health at risk.

In 2020, bacteria levels at New Jersey beaches indicated that water was potentially unsafe for swimming on at least 35 days, according to a new report Safe for Swimming? by Environment New Jersey Research & Policy Center.

The report comes as Congress is set to vote today on a set of initiatives on water infrastructure that directly impact run-off and sewage pollution.

“One day of a beach closing is too many. We need to keep our beaches safe for swimming by working with Shore towns to build the infrastructure that will keep the water clean,” said Doug O’Malley, Director of Environment New Jersey Research & Policy Center. “The Shore is packed especially in a heat wave and we want to ensure the cleanest possible water quality. Now is the time to provide federal infrastructure funding to ensure that our waters are always safe for swimming by reducing run-off and sewage pollution.”

To assess water quality safety, the group examined whether pathogen indicator bacteria levels exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) most protective “Beach Action Value,” which is associated with an estimated illness rate of 32 out of every 1,000 swimmers. In New Jersey, the testing is conducted at 210 Ocean and Bay beaches.

In 2020, New Jersey’s state action levels were triggered 35 times.

Notably, the 5th Ave. Bay Front Beach at Seaside Park Borough had 14 exceedances and had bacteria levels above this safety threshold on 47 percent of the days respectively tested last year, more than any other testing site in the state. It also resulted in 12 day of beach closures at this site.

Also, Beachwood West Beach in Beachwood was recorded via NJDEP data (but not EPA data) as having one exceedance before it was closed last July to investigate further pollution sources.

“While we’ve come a long way from the hundreds of beach closures in the past, it’s clear there are still problem areas and Clean Ocean Action is developing new programs to help track down and eliminate pollution sources,” said Cindy Zipf, Executive Director, Clean Ocean Action. “This is a remarkable report card for New Jersey’s work to improve beach water quality. However, the program itself is long-overdue for an upgrade.”

For the Seaside Park 5th Ave. Bay Front beach, exceedances started happening in late August, first on August 17th and then again on August 24. This resulted in investigating primary and bracket stations daily until September 2, 2020, and elevated concentrations were still observed.

According to the NJDEP Cooperative Coastal Monitoring Program, Antibiotic Resistance Analyses (A) indicated that wildlife was a likely source. The beach reopened in early September and closed for the season the following week.

Beachwood Beach was closed early in the season as elevated levels of bacteria were observed in ambient conditions. As early as July, it was decided to close down the beach to allow for source track down investigations.

These chronic water quality problems are being investigated by a multi-year track down project, with a set of environmental, community and governmental partners, including NJDEP, Clean Ocean Action, Save Barnegat Bay and MATES (Marine Academy of Technology and Environmental Science).

More background is available via NJDEP at

“This problem is on the bayside only. Seaside Park’s ocean beaches are all clean, safe and open. We have had some trouble recently at one bayside beach at 5th Avenue which we suspect is related to the state’s newly installed stormwater pumping stations. We have reached out to all of the agencies involved and environmental groups for assistance and would welcome a collaborative effort to solving the problem. This beach is used by our children and has never had these problems prior to the Route 35 project,” said Seaside Park Mayor John A. Peterson Jr.

Other New Jersey beaches found potentially unsafe for swimming at least twice in 2020 included beaches in Long Beach Township (Bay Beach), Surf City (Bay Beach), Lavallette (Bay Beach), Wildwood, Sea Isle City and Cape May. The monitoring with exceedances included 11 testing locations in 10 separate towns.

“Development pressures continue at the Shore and around Barnegat Bay as everyone wants to live by the water. We need the continued support of federal and state dollars to update infrastructure, both green and gray, to keep our home waters fishable and swimmable. Towns like Seaside Park have been good stewards of our beaches and have made significant local investments in a planned living shoreline and water quality project which includes an oyster reef,” said Save Barnegat Bay’s Executive Director Britta Forsberg.

The report recommends major investments to prevent sewage overflows and run-off pollution. Today, the U.S. House of Representatives is scheduled to vote on the Water Quality Protection Act (HR 1915).

The bill would authorize $40 billion over five years for the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) program that provides communities with low-cost financing for clean water infrastructure projects.

Additionally, H.R. 1915 includes provisions designed to both assist small or financially disadvantaged communities and dedicate 15 percent of the funding to state grants for green infrastructure improvements. The legislation is part of the surface transportation bill (INVEST).

“The road to safer swimming waters has two lanes. There is a point-source lane that runs through Washington D.C. Lawmakers can choose to fully fund the Clean Water Revolving Fund which helps build and upgrade sewage treatment infrastructure. They can fully fund the BEACH Act as well which pays for all this testing at recreational bathing beaches,” said John Weber, Mid Atlantic Regional Manager for the Surfrider Foundation. “The non-point-source lane to safer swimming waters depends on thousands of decisions made by individual property owners like when a homeowner decides to install an Ocean Friendly Garden, or when a municipality decides to reduce its stormwater runoff through a low impact development ordinance.”

Polluted runoff from roads and parking lots, overflowing or failing sewer systems, and farms are common sources of contamination that can put swimmers’ health at risk and lead authorities to close beaches or issue health advisories.

Scientists estimate 57 million instances of people getting sick each year from contact with polluted waters in the U.S.

“We’ve been having a hot summer. Folks want to enjoy our beaches, but water pollution continues to threaten the Shore year after year. Stormwater runoff and sewage end up in our bays and ocean, closing beaches for sometimes days at a time. Every year, this report has shown that New Jersey needs to do more to protect our coast and bays from chronic pollution, runoff from fertilizers and septics, and old leaky sewer pipes,” said Taylor McFarland, acting director of the Sierra Club New Jersey. “It’s time for the Murphy administration and the NJDEP to wake up and smell the sewage.”

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