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Testing the Waters: Beach Closures Highlight Lax Looks at City Surf

A recent beach closure over bacteria highlights that New Yorkers don’t always know what they’re swimming in.

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A balmy day on the Atlantic Ocean in the Rockaways this July.

Katie Honan/THE CITY

First it was lifeguard shortages, then shark sightings. Last week, poor water quality led to closed beaches in Queens — with some experts saying that highlights the need for more testing to keep swimmers safe. 

The National Park Service, which oversees the popular Riis Park beach on federal land, on Aug. 4 prohibited swimming for 24 hours due to elevated levels of bacteria found in the ocean.

“We test the water weekly, and if the levels exceed the acceptable level, testing is done daily until the levels are within the acceptable threshold of 104 cfu/100 mL,” NPS spokesperson Daphne Yun wrote in an email to THE CITY. 

CFU refers to “colony forming units,” a measure of the number of active bacteria in the water. The higher the bacteria level, the higher the risk of beachgoers and swimmers possibly becoming sick.

The NPS’ weekly testing that revealed the high level of bacteria was done on Aug. 1, although the results weren’t revealed until the next day, Yun said.

When the park service recorded two consecutive days of high bacteria, it closed the beach to swimming, she said. 

Rockaway Beach, which is nearby Riis, is operated by the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation and did not close due to bacteria at any point last week.

A spokesperson for the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which tests municipal water, said sampling was conducted at the Queens beach on Aug. 3, but the levels of bacteria “were below thresholds for an advisory or closure.” 

The health department said it first starts to monitor and sample water at city beaches a month before they open to the public in May. It then tests water every week at most beaches. But those on the Rockaway peninsula, including private beaches in Breezy Point, are sampled twice a week, according to the DOHMH. 

Several experts told THE CITY they believe officials should be testing the waters more often. 

Sand and surf at Jacob Riis Park on Aug. 9.

Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

“If we’re going to have people on the beaches all the time, and we’re going to have this interspersed rain with climate change, we should consider testing twice a week, even more if necessary on a regular basis,” said Holly Porter-Morgan, a professor of environmental science at LaGuardia Community College.

Rob Buchanan, a co-founder of the NYC Water Trails Association, a nonprofit coalition of non-motorized boating groups, agreed.

“They should be testing daily at all beaches, and they should be publishing those results daily,” he said. 

More frequent testing could help clarify whether Riis’ bacteria levels were also found at Rockaway, for instance. And it could help close the information gaps that exist because it takes 24 hours to process the tests.

East Coast vs. West Coast

The spokesperson for the federally operated Gateway National Recreation Area said closures like the one this week at Riis Park happen at the beach “periodically.”

But experts said it is rare for ocean-facing beaches to be closed due to bacteria, noting it’s more common at beaches along bays and sounds. The Rockaway Peninsula bounds Jamaica Bay on one side, with Riis Park and adjacent beaches on the Atlantic side. 

Rob Pirani, the program director for the New York-New Jersey Harbor & Estuary program at the Hudson River Foundation, noted that while the waters around New York City have been cleaned up significantly over the last few decades, there are still challenges — especially with “combined sewer overflows.”

Many of New York City’s sewers capture both sewage and stormwater, and when it rains, that mixture often overflows into the city’s waterways.

Swimmer Jordan Mattheisen heads north in the East River toward Roosevelt Island during the 20 Bridges swim event.

Courtesy of Jordan Mattheisen

“We should always be testing after even a quarter inch of rain at our beaches to ensure there isn’t bacteria at the beaches,” Porter-Morgan said, adding she personally will wait three days after an overflow before re-entering the water.

There had not, however, been significant rainfall ahead of the beach closure. Pirani said the elevated bacteria — enterococcus, which is an easily testable indicator of other dangerous bacteria — could also be from tidal shifts.

“Generally water flows from east to west along the Atlantic seashore,” he said. “But if for some reason water was flowing more heavily out of Jamaica Bay and out of the harbor and from west to east, that may also have contributed to poorer water quality coming out of the city beaches.”

Mike Dulong, a senior attorney at Riverkeeper, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the Hudson, encourages beachgoers to always check public health advisories before getting in the water.

NotifyNYC also provides alerts about beaches and water bodies.

“You should be cautious because [an advisory] means that there’s potential that there are harmful bacteria that could make you sick, and it is not worth it to go under those conditions,” he said.

To Swim or Not to Swim

The city encourages swimming only at designated beaches due to several factors, including pollution concerns, but that hasn’t stopped intrepid New Yorkers from venturing into other waters.

Jordan Mattheisen, a chemical biology graduate student who lives on the Upper East Side, spends lots of her life around the city as a long distance, open water swimmer. 

Before she heads into the surf, she looks at the city’s online beach water quality tracker to make sure there are no advisories.

“I am not fanatical with looking at particular counts or pollutants or anything like that,” she said. “If it’s really stormy one weekend, I probably won’t be going to the beach. Some people swim through that and don’t seem to mind it so much, but I’m not as willing to risk my health.”

In a city with 520 miles of coastline, technically just 14 miles of designated beaches are approved for swimming. A combination of marine traffic, strong currents and water quality can make swimming in the “nearshore waterfronts” and harbor dangerous, according to the Department of City Planning’s 2021 Comprehensive Waterfront Plan.

Swimmer Jordan Mattheisen and her support crew head south in the Hudson River near Fort Lee during the 20 Bridges swim.

Courtesy of Jordan Mattheisen

But as far as water quality goes, it’s not always unsafe to swim in the harbor or elsewhere — and people do.

“In most places inside and outside the harbor, on most days, it’s very probable that the water quality is good enough to swim,” said Buchanan, of the Water Trails Association. “The harbor is a big place and it gets flushed literally twice a day with ocean water.”

The New York City Triathlon, which took place in July, relies on tests from the city Department of Environmental Protection to ensure the athletes are safe in the swimming portion of the race.

The DEP tests the water in the weeks leading up to the race, and draws samples four times during the week of the event, according to spokesperson Jordan Titus. Organizers are not aware of anyone who became sick from swimming, Titus said.

Capri Djatiasmoro, a coordinator with the Coney Island Brighton Beach Open Water Swimmers, said the city has only twice since 2003 shut down events she’s organized. She cites abundant marine life as evidence of how much cleaner the waters have become.

She swims on a near-daily basis but pays no mind to the advisories.

“I’ve never had a problem. I never check that stuff,” she said. “I’ve never gotten sick in Manhattan or anywhere.” 

Mattheisen has swum in the harbor many times since she moved to New York City in 2017. And last month, she circumnavigated Manhattan as part of New York Open Water’s 20 Bridges event.

She said she’s never gotten sick from her swims, although she’s found it “really disgusting” when she’s gone through trash. But experiences like seeing dolphins in the harbor near Brooklyn last summer have made the risks — and ick-factor — worth it.

“At the end of the day, there’s some level of risk that you’re always going to be taking, but I don’t think it should prevent you from trying something in the open water,” Mattheisen said. “There’s ways to mitigate that risk and there’s also a lot of beautiful things that can come from swimming.”

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