New York is the only state in the nation 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 at least 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.
Green Infrastructure in New York City
Photo courtesy of NYC Environmental Protection An enhanced tree pit on Autumn Avenue in Brooklyn helps keep runoff from going down the drain.
More than 70% of New York City's 7,400 miles of sewers are combined sewers that carry sanitary sewage and stormwater runoff in the same pipes. When overwhelmed by the volume of wastewater needing treatment during and immediately after precipitation events, 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 city Department of Environmental Protection (NYCDEP) and New York State reached an agreement to modify an existing enforcement order governing the city's CSO reduction plan, which would alter existing "gray" infrastructure requirements and add new requirements to implement key aspects of the city's Green Infrastructure Plan. The order eliminates some planned gray projects and substitutes certain others, which are projected to achieve comparable CSO volume reductions on a citywide basis, for a net savings of $1.4 billion. It 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. Much of the savings on gray investments 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.
In addition to the construction projects being pursued city-wide, the city has been investing significantly in pilot projects to quantify the effectiveness of various green infrastructure technologies in reducing stormwater runoff and to assess long-term operation and maintenance needs.
Preventing Floatables from Washing Up on New York City Beaches
CSOs discharged from New York City contain not only fecal material and other pollutants, but 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 NYCDEP also maintains 24 floatables containment facilities that capture floatables from approximately 60,000 acres of the city before they enter the ocean. In addition, NYCDEP 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.
What Does Beachwater Monitoring Show?
In 2011, New York reported 346 coastal swimming beaches and beach segments. Of these, 2 (1%) were assigned a daily monitoring frequency, 88 (25%) more than once a week, and 256 (74%) once a week. In New York, swimming is prohibited at beaches that are not open. Twenty-six beaches on New York's beach list were not open in 2011. These beaches (indicated on the beach list with a † symbol) were not included in New York's beach count because they were not bathing beaches in 2011. Some of the beaches that were closed all year were monitored as part of water quality investigations even though swimming was not allowed, and their sample results are included in NRDC's analysis. In 2011, 10% 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 2011 were Douglaston Homeowners Association in Queens County (42%), Krull Park in Niagara County (41%), Woodlawn Beach—Woodlawn Beach State Park in Erie County (32%), and Shore Acres Club in Westchester County (32%). Beaches in Niagara County had the highest exceedance rate of the state standards in 2011 (31%), followed by Monroe (25%), Chautauqua (20%), Erie (16%), Queens (15%), Jefferson (14%), Bronx (11%), Westchester (11%), Nassau (8%), Suffolk (7%), Richmond (7%), Kings (7%), and Oswego (1%) counties. There were no exceedances in Cayuga and Wayne counties. 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.
* Please note that only samples from a common set of beaches monitored each year from 2007-2011 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 11 contractors in accordance with U.S. EPA guidance criteria for the requirements of the BEACH Act grant. Water samples are collected at knee depth in water that is approximately three 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 2011?
Total closing/advisory days for 856 events lasting six consecutive weeks or less increased 93% to 1,841 days in 2011 from 956 days in 2010. For prior years, there were 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. (Note that while New York City treats the six segments at Coney Island Beach as one beach for notification purposes and the eight segments at Rockaway Beach as one beach for notification purposes, there are multiple monitoring locations at each beach, and NRDC has chosen to report the water quality results for each of these monitoring stations separately. While New York City's records for Coney Island Beach, for example, would show 5 advisory days in 2011 at this beach, NRDC reports 5 days for each segment for a total of 30 advisory days at this beach.) In addition, there were 2 extended events (105 days total) and one permanent event (101 days) in 2011. 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 856 events lasting six consecutive weeks or less, 26% (481) of closing/advisory days were due to monitoring that revealed elevated bacteria levels, 11% (211) were preemptive due to other reasons, 65% (1,204) were preemptive due to heavy rainfall, and 2% (28) were preemptive to due known sewage spills or leaks. Totals exceed total days and 100% because 11 events, predominantly in Monroe County, were preemptive due to rain and poor water clarity as well as monitoring that revealed high bacteria levels.
During the 2011 swim season, beaches in New York City were impacted by a nearly 200-million-gallon sewage spill into the Hudson River, record-breaking storms, and Hurricane Irene. During the sewage spill, which occurred after a fire on July 20 in the engine room of the North River Treatment plant, the city monitored results of samples collected throughout the harbor and used the Regional Bypass Model to predict the movement and flow of the plume of sewage. Many beaches were closed and/or placed under advisory due to the spill. Hurricane Irene and a separate storm that carried the highest recorded rainfall in a single day (7.72 inches) in mid-August contributed to the wettest August on record for New York City, with Central Park experiencing 18.95 inches of rainfall, besting the previous August record of 16.85 inches, set in 1882. These storms produced localized flooding and resulted in advisories and closures at beaches in the area.
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, New York uses an E. coli single-sample maximum of 235 cfu/100 ml 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.6 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 if there is reason to doubt the validity of the original sample result. Resampling is performed no more than 24 hours after the routine monitoring results indicated an exceedance. 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 trigger an advisory or closing.
Several of New York's beachwater quality contracting entities have developed models of various designs and complexity for their beaches. For example, Monroe County uses a model based on amount of rainfall, the flow rate of the Genessee River, turbidity, 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 2011 Monitoring Results and Closing and Advisory Days *
||Assigned Monitoring Frequency
||% of samples exceeding state standards
||Closing or Advisory days
- † These beaches were not open in 2011. In New York, swimming is prohibited at beaches that are not open, so they were not swimming beaches in 2011. Swim advisories and closings are not issued at beaches that are not open.
- * Reported closing or advisory days are for events lasting six consecutive weeks or less. Number of days in parentheses are for events lasting more than six consecutive weeks.