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Report: Runoff Pollutes NY & NJ Beaches, But There's a Cleaner, Greener Future

Larry Levine

Posted June 26, 2013 in Curbing Pollution, Health and the Environment

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If you’re planning a beach getaway this summer, there’s more than one reason to hope for clear, sunny skies.  Besides sending beachgoers running for their umbrellas, rainstorms routinely flush harmful pollution – including bacteria, viruses, and other parasites from human and animal waste – from developed areas into our beachwater, causing thousands of health advisories and beach closings every year. 

NRDC’s 23rd annual beachwater quality report, released today, shows that 2012 was no exception.  For the third consecutive year, Testing the Waters reported over 20,000 closing and advisory days at America’s beaches because of polluted water or threatened contamination. 

rockaway.jpg

Rockaway Beach, credit: Erica Bower

In New York and New Jersey alone, the total approached 2,000 days for the second consecutive year.  As in past years, the most common known pollution source was stormwater runoff, which carries all varieties of filth from roadways, rooftops, and parking lots into sewer systems, which then dump this mess into local waterways. 

Further, while Superstorm Sandy hit last year after the close of the beach season, it made clear how vulnerable our sewage infrastructure is to the larger storms that climate change is expected to bring to our region more frequently.  Floods from the storm overwhelmed the region’s sewage treatment plants, dumping 10 billion gallons of sewage into New York’s and New Jersey’s rivers, bays, canals, city streets and, ultimately, beaches. That’s on top of the damage to boardwalks, homes and dunes. While most beaches have fortunately reopened since the storm, nine in New York and New Jersey are still shuttered from the storm. 

NRDC’s beach report can help you plan our next trip to the beach with zip code-searchable guide to the summer 2012 results for your favorite beaches in New York, New Jersey, or anywhere else in the country.  These pages will show you how frequently each beach was tested for water quality (more than once a week is recommended), how often water samples violated health standards, and how many days the beach was under a health advisory or closed due to high bacteria levels or elevated risks from polluted runoff.

You can also read a more detailed summary of the results for NY & NJ here.  And we invite you to browse NRDC’s 5-star rating guide to 200 popular beaches nationwide.  (No beaches in New York or New Jersey got a “Superstar” rating in this year’s report, but 14 received 4 stars.)

While polluted runoff is the clear villain in this story, the good news is that we know how to beat it.  By using more “green infrastructure” in our cityscapes – which includes measures ranging from porous pavement on roadways and sidewalks, to green roofs, parks, roadside plantings and rain barrels --  we can stop rain where it falls, capturing it for reuse, or allowing it to filter into the ground naturally. This keeps stormwater from becoming wastewater and prevents sewage systems from overflowing.

You can see exactly how this works in this video of a roadside green space in New York City, soaking up rainwater from the street before it ever reaches a sewer:

   

Dean Street bioswale (Brooklyn, NY), credit: NYC DEP

Besides protecting our beaches and cleaning up urban waterways, these green infrastructure solutions also beautify neighborhoods, cool and cleanse the air, reduce asthma and heat-related illnesses, help save on heating and cooling energy costs, and boost local economies and support American jobs.

With all of these benefits, it’s no surprise that cities are increasingly turning to green infrastructure to solve their stormwater pollution and sewage overflow problems.

These smarter water management practices should become the norm in communities across our country.  Testing the Waters provides a roadmap to policy solutions that can make this happen. And we need EPA to lead the way by helping our communities fast-track green infrastructure solutions.

So, before you leave for your beach getway this summer, check out NRDC’s clean beach guide, and click here to tell the EPA to keep our beaches safe!

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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