State Summary: New York

Ranked 22th in Beachwater Quality (out of 30 states)
9% of samples exceeded national standards for designated beach areas in 2012

Protecting swimmers from bacteria, viruses, and other contaminants in beachwater requires leadership. Federal officials must help clean up polluted stormwater runoff—the most commonly identified cause of beach closings and swimming advisories—by developing national rules that require pollution sources to prevent stormwater where it starts by retaining it on-site.

The Environmental Protection Agency must also set beachwater quality standards protective of human health and provide states with the support they need to monitor beach pollution and notify the public when pollution levels are high.

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New York 2012 Beachwater Quality Summary

Reported Sources of Beachwater Contamination
(number of closing/advisory days)

  • 1,455 (89%) stormwater runoff
  • 128 (8%) sewage spills/leaks
  • 120 (7%) unknown contamination sources
  • 53 (3%) wildlife
  • 38 (2%) other contamination sources

(Totals exceed total days and 100% because more than one contamination source was reported for some events.)

New York is the only state with both marine and Great Lakes coastline. There are 127 miles of Atlantic Ocean coastline, 231 miles of shorefront on Long Island Sound, 548 miles of Long Island bayfront, and 83 miles of shorefront on islands off the Long Island coast. In addition to these marine coastlines, there are more than 200 miles of freshwater shoreline on Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. Nearly all of the state's coastal beaches are on Atlantic waters. The coastal beach monitoring program in New York is administered by the New York State Department of Health.

What Are the Water Quality Challenges and Improvements in New York?

Hurricane Sandy

Hurricane Sandy was one of the largest storms ever to hit the northeastern United States. Killing 159 people and causing an estimated $70 billion in damage in eight states, Sandy was the most destructive hurricane of the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season and the second-costliest hurricane in U.S. history. On October 16, 2013, New York declared a statewide state of emergency due to the storm. Parts of Long Island were evacuated, and there were widespread power outages in Manhattan. Across the mid-Atlantic, floods overwhelmed sewage treatment plants and flushed 11 billion gallons of raw and partially treated sewage into rivers, bays, canals, and city streets, according to a recent report by the research firm Climate Central. For perspective, this volume of waste could cover all of Central Park with a layer of sewage 41 feet high and is more than 50 times the amount of oil spilled BP Deepwater disaster. Approximately 93% of the volume of sewage overflows was from New York (47%) and New Jersey (46%) alone.

Sandy not only caused flooding and sewage overflows but also severely damaged treatment plants and pumping stations. The damaged treatment plants continued to release largely untreated sewage into local waterways for weeks after the storm. For example, nearly 50 million gallons of untreated sewage came from one Yonkers treatment plant during the storm, and another 1.2 billion gallons of partially treated sewage flowed from the plant in the four weeks afterward. On Long Island, the Bay Park treatment plant released 100 million gallons of untreated sewage into Hewlett Bay during the 44 hours the plant was offline; it released another 2.2 billion gallons of partially treated sewage over the next 44 days, until full operation was restored. Overall, it will cost New York an estimated $2 billion to repair the damage Sandy caused to sewage treatment plants in the state. Local health department jurisdictions and beach operators have been actively engaged in extensive restoration efforts where needed. Under the federal Sandy relief bill, EPA provided grants of $340 million to New York state for improvements to wastewater and drinking water treatment facilities impacted by Hurricane Sandy.

New York City Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) Reduction Program and Green Infrastructure

More than 70% of New York City's 7,400 miles of sewers are combined sewers, which carry sanitary sewage and stormwater runoff in the same pipes. When overwhelmed by the volume of wastewater needing treatment during and immediately after storms, combined sewer systems discharge a mixture of rainfall runoff and raw sewage into area waterways (called combined sewer overflows, or CSOs). These CSOs contain fecal material that compromises the water quality in New York Harbor. Reducing the amount of stormwater runoff that reaches sewage treatment plants is one means of reducing the volume and frequency of these overflows and improving water quality. Green infrastructure is a strategy that reduces runoff by mimicking natural conditions that allow rainwater to infiltrate into the soil. Green infrastructure techniques include the use of porous pavement, green roofs, rain gardens, roadside plantings, and rain barrels that stop rain where it falls, either storing it for later beneficial use or letting it filter into the ground naturally.

In March 2012, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and New York State finalized a new consent order governing the city's CSO obligations, which altered pre-existing "gray" infrastructure requirements and added new requirements to implement key aspects of the city's 20-year Green Infrastructure Plan. The order eliminated some planned gray projects and substituted certain others, which are projected to achieve comparable CSO volume reductions on a citywide basis with a net savings of $1.4 billion. Much of these savings will be reinvested to meet the order's new green infrastructure requirements, which include capturing the first inch of runoff from at least 10 percent of the impervious surfaces in city's combined sewer areas. The consent order also defers until 2017 any decisions on two potential CSO detention tunnels, estimated to cost $2 billion, to give the city an opportunity to develop green alternatives that could substitute for, or allow the downsizing of, those projects. The DEP has invested more than $2 billion to date in CSO controls and has committed to an additional $1.3 billion over the next 10 years. In addition, the DEP is preparing CSO Long Term Control Plans that will assess additional CSO controls to acheive the highest reasonably achievable water quality standards.

As of June 2013, the DEP has completed construction of three Neighborhood Demonstration Areas, in which dozens of bioswales were installed to allow the city to measure CSO volume reductions from green infrastructure projects on a multi-block scale. Taken together, the three installations are projected to collect more than 7 million gallons of stormwater a year and keep it out of the combined sewer system. Citywide, the city has installed 119 bioswales to date and expects to rapidly accelerate construction in the coming years, with near-term goals of 2,000 bioswales by the end of 2014 and 6,000 by the end of 2015.

Preventing Floatables from Washing Up on New York City Beaches

CSOs discharged from New York City also carry floating debris made up of street litter and toilet waste such as hygiene products. When discharged to the New York/New Jersey Harbor Complex, the floating debris tends to collect into slicks that can wash up on beaches. The multi-agency Floatables Action Plan employs several means of controlling floating debris, such as helicopter surveillance to locate slicks, catch basins to reduce the discharge of street litter to sewers, increased street cleaning in some neighborhoods, skimmer vessels fitted with nets that collect floating debris, floating booms that trap debris near sewer system discharge points for later collection, and sewer system improvements intended to maximize the ability to retain floating debris.

The DEP also maintains 24 containment facilities that capture floatables from approximately 60,000 acres of the city before they enter the ocean. In addition, the agency has a shoreline dumping prevention program to monitor for evidence of recent illegal disposal activities. Findings are reported to the Department of Sanitation police for follow-up and apprehension of illegal dumpers. These methods have prevented tons of floating debris from reaching area beaches each year. The DEP has also begun operating four new floatable control facilities along the Bronx River and two new CSO retention facilities in Paerdegat Basin in Brooklyn and Alley Creek in Queens.

What Does Beachwater Monitoring Show?1

In 2012, New York reported 361 coastal beaches and beach segments, of which 2 (1%) were assigned a monitoring frequency of daily, 36 (10%) more than once a week, 174 (48%) once a week, 57 (16%) every other week, 89 (25%) once a month, and 1 (<1%) less than once a month; 2 (1%) were not assigned a monitoring frequency. An additional 21 beaches were not assigned a monitoring frequency because they are no longer in operation and there are no plans for them to reopen. In 2012, 9% of all reported beach monitoring samples exceeded the state's daily maximum bacterial standard of 104 colonies/100 ml for marine beaches and 235 colonies/100 ml for Great Lakes beaches.

The beaches with the highest percent exceedance rates of the state standard in 2012 were Shore Acres Club in Westchester County (50%), Main Street Beach in Chautauqua County (35%), Surf Club in Westchester County (35%), Ontario Beach (33%) and Hamlin Beach–Area 4 (30%) in Monroe County, and Wright Park–East/West in Chautauqua County (30%). Monroe County had the highest exceedance rate of the daily maximum standard in 2012 (28%), followed by Chautauqua (18%), Bronx (15%), Westchester (14%), Niagara (14%), Wayne (13%), Jefferson (11%), Richmond (8%), Queens (7%), Suffolk (7%), Erie (6%), Nassau (6%), Cayuga (5%), Kings (5%), and Oswego (1%). NRDC considers all reported samples individually (without averaging) when calculating the percent exceedance rates in this analysis. This includes duplicate samples and samples taken outside the official beach season, if any.

New York Percent of Samples Exceeding the State's Daily Maximum Bacterial Standard for 334 Beaches Reported 2008-2012*

    * Please note that only samples from a common set of beaches monitored each year from 2008-2012 are included in the bar chart.

    What Are New York's Sampling Practices?

    The monitoring season generally extends from May to September. Sampling practices, locations, and notification protocols for coastal beaches in the state have been established by each of the administering agency's 12 contractors in accordance with U.S. EPA guidance criteria for the requirements of the BEACH Act grant. Samples are collected at knee depth in water that is approximately 3 feet deep. Monitoring locations and sampling frequency depend on a variety of factors, including (but not limited to) potential pollution sources, historical water quality, and physical characteristics of the beach property.

    Samples taken as part of sanitary surveys and special studies may be taken at outfalls and other sources. Some jurisdictions sample more frequently once an exceedance of standards is found.

    How Many Beach Closings and Advisories Were Issued in 2012?2

    Total closing/advisory days for 854 events lasting six consecutive weeks or less decreased 12% to 1,626 days in 2012 from 1,841 days in 2011. For prior years, there were 956 days in 2010, 1,775 days in 2009, 1,610 days in 2008, 1,547 days in 2007, 1,280 days in 2006, and 827 days in 2005. In addition, there were 2 extended events (124 days total) and 1 permanent event (98 days) in 2012. Extended events are those in effect more than six weeks but not more than 13 consecutive weeks; permanent events are in effect for more than 13 consecutive weeks. For the 854 events lasting six consecutive weeks or less, 68% (1,092) of closing/advisory days were preemptive due to heavy rainfall, 38% (612) were due to monitoring that revealed elevated bacteria levels, 1% (10) were preemptive based on the results of computer modeling, and <1% (6) were preemptive due to other reasons. (Totals exceed total days and 100% because more than one reason was reported for some events.)

    How Does New York Determine When to Warn Visitors About Swimming?

    Both closings and advisories are issued for beaches in the state. For marine beaches, New York uses an enterococcus single-sample maximum of 104 cfu/100 ml. For freshwater beaches, the state uses a single-sample maximum of 235 cfu/100 ml for E. coli or 61 cfu/100 ml for enterococcus. Whether or not geometric mean standards are applied when making closing and advisory decisions depends on the local beach authority. In addition to the single-sample maximum standard for marine beaches, New York City applies a geometric mean standard for enterococcus of 35 cfu/100 ml for a series of five or more samples collected during a 30-day period.

    When water quality monitoring reveals an exceedance of bacterial standards, the local beach authority either notifies the public or resamples within 24 hours if there is reason to doubt the validity of the original result. If the resample exceeds the water quality standard, a closing or advisory is issued. At New York City beaches that are found to have elevated bacteria levels, the department either conducts immediate resampling, issues a pollution advisory and conducts resampling, or closes the beach and conducts resampling.

    All of the counties with marine beaches and most of the counties with Great Lakes beaches issue preemptive advisories based on rainfall amounts or other conditions. A sanitation and safety survey or investigation that reveals the presence of floatable debris, medical/infectious waste, toxic contaminants, petroleum products, and/or other contamination on the beach or evidence of sewage and wastewater discharge can also trigger an advisory or closing.

    Several of New York's beachwater quality jurisdictions have developed models of various designs and complexity for their beaches. For example, Monroe County uses a model based on the amount of rainfall, the flow rate of the Genessee River, turbidity, and the presence of algae and other organic debris. The Interstate Environmental Commission initiated the development of an extensive hydrodynamic loading model (the Regional Bypass Model), which is integrated into the beach monitoring and notification programs of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the Westchester County Health Department. Erie and Monroe Counties and the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation are working with the United States Geological Survey to examine predictive models using EPA's Virtual Beach software. Chautauqua County has also developed models using Virtual Beach.

    New York 2012 Monitoring Results and Closing/Advisory Days3

    Assigned Monitoring Frequency
    Total Samples
    % of samples exceeding
    state standards
    Closing or Advisory days
      NOTE: Data and state-specific information for this summary were collected from U.S. EPA, direct conversations with beach managers in the state, state grant reports to U.S. EPA for BEACH Act funding, and the state water quality website. The information in this state summary reflects current data as of June 7, 2013.
    1. If the 2012 percent exceedance values in this summary don't match, why not? The value at the top of the page reflects the proportion of samples exceeding the national single-sample maximum standard for designated beach areas. The values in the "What Does Beach Monitoring Show?" section reflect the proportion of samples exceeding the state standard, which in some states is more or less stringent than the national designated beach standard. Additionally, only samples from a common set of beaches monitored each year from 2008-2012 are included in the bar chart. Because some beaches were not monitored in each of those years, the percent exceedance for this subset of beaches may not have the same value as the percent exceedance for all of the beaches monitored in 2012.
    2. Year-to-year changes in closing/advisory days should not necessarily be interpreted as an indication of the level of bacterial contamination. In some states and localities, the number of beaches and/or beach monitoring frequency may not be consistent from one year to the next, and beaches may be closed or under a swimming advisory for reasons other than known or suspected bacterial contamination. Other reasons include, but are not limited to, chemical/oil spills, medical waste washing up on shore, dangerous currents, lack of lifeguards, etc. In addition, because NRDC's totals of closing/advisory events focus on those events lasting six consecutive weeks or less, those tallies do not account for longer-duration closings or advisories. For trends in water quality, please refer to NRDC's year-to-year comparison of percent exceedance rates of state water quality standards.
    3. Reported closing or advisory days are for events lasting six consecutive weeks or less. Days in parentheses are for events lasting more than six consecutive weeks. In New York, swimming is prohibited at beaches that are not open. Swim advisories and closings are not issued at beaches that are not open. Twenty-eight beaches on New York's beach list were not open in 2012. Twenty-one of these beaches were not assigned a monitoring frequency because they are no longer in operation and there are no plans for them to reopen. Seven of these beaches were dormant in 2012; five of which were monitored as part of water quality investigations even though swimming was not allowed, and their sample results are included in NRDC's analysis.


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