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City Beaches: Safe for Swimming?

There was a time when a hot-dog vendor working on the beach at Coney Island could sell 250,000 hot dogs in one day.

That, at least, is what one of them told Sergey Fedorovskiy recently. Fedorovskiy is a lifeguard at Manhattan Beach for the summer and a student in computer science at Staten Island College the rest of the year. On a recent Friday, the small beach next to Fedorovskiy's chair had maybe 50 people spread out on blankets and beach chairs. Only a dozen or so were getting wet. Few were eating hot dogs.

So far this summer six million people have set foot on one of the city's seven beaches3Orchard Beach in the Bronx, Coney Island and Manhattan Beach in Brooklyn, the Rockaways in Queens, South Beach, Midland Beach and Wolfe's Pond in Staten Island. But last summer the attendance was much higher, approximately 10 million by the end of August, according to the New York City Department of Parks.

For the three years that he has been a lifeguard, Fedorovskiy has noticed the number of beach-goers dwindling.

"It could be the ecology," he speculates. "The water's not that clean. Or maybe it's the neighborhood or the maintenance of the beach."

A few years ago, needles were washing up on the city's shores, millions of gallons of sewage regularly colored the waters and popular beaches were declared off-limits to swimmers. How safe is it today to swim at New York City beaches? How clean is the water? A lifeguard shortage was announced at the beginning of the season. Did it affect the safety of the beaches? And is the West Nile virus discouraging people from getting into their swimsuits?


It rained heavily this summer and heavy rains can mean sewage run-off into our beaches. New York City's sewage pipes are combined with stormwater runoff pipes in a single system. In the event of heavy rains, the additional rainwater can cause run-off of untreated sewage into the city waterways.

A report released last week by the Natural Resources Defense Council, "Testing the Waters, 2000: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches" faulted New York City for not making greater efforts to inform the public about combined sewage runoff and its relation to heavy rainfall

Brooklyn and Bronx beaches are tested weekly by the New York City Department of Health, and the Rockaways once every two weeks. But even when levels exceed the standards, the public is not notified, says Mark Dorfman who authored the Natural Resources Defense Council report.

The New York City Department of Health responded that there is an ongoing wet-weather advisory posted on some Bronx beaches warning bathers of the dangers of going in the water should rainfall exceed certain amounts. These amounts vary by borough because of the sewage infrastructure (see Wet Weather Advisory chart). This advisory can also be found at the Department of Health's website.

Wet Weather Advisory:
Private Beaches, Eastchester Bay area, BRONX
Refrain from swimming in the water for 48 hours following rains greater than .2 inches in two hours or .4 inches in 24 hours

Manhattan Beach, BROOKLYN
South and Midland Beach, STATEN ISLAND:
Refrain from swimming in the water for 12 hours following rains greater than 1 - 1.5 inches in 6 hours in previous 24 hours


According to the National Weather Service, precipitation in the city for the month of July (August not yet available) exceeded the safe rainfall standards on several days. Though the city has not yet released how many beaches were closed this year, they said that none of them were closed due to sewage. But the last year figures were available (1998), 59 beaches were closed either because bacteria levels were exceeded or there was a known "sewage release."


The Natural Resources Defense Council also criticized New York City, and all but one county of New York State (Niagara), for their testing process that uses fecal coliforms (found in human waste) as the indicator of potential disease causing organisms in the water. The EPA recommended in 1986 that the presence of enterococcus organisms be used as the indicator instead of fecal coliforms because their presence is most often linked disease-causing organisms. A bill is presently making its way through the Senate and Congress to make the EPA recommendation mandatory for all states. "You can't test for every possible disease causing organism," said Dorfman, "but enterococcus is the better indicator of contamination of swimming waters."

John Gadd, a spokesperson for the Department of Health maintained that fecal coliforms were an effective and efficient indicator of the presence of bacteria. "Coliforms are always present in waters that have too much sewage," Gadd explained.

In addition to water testing, the Department of Health monitors sanitary conditions on the beaches. They would also conduct epidemiological investigations in the event of an outbreak of disease caused by unsafe waters, "which to my knowledge has not happened," assured Gadd.


Meanwhile, the City's Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is applauding the efforts of its own Enhanced Beach Protection Program that monitors, analyzes and performs preventative maintenance on the wastewater facilities and sewage bypass outlets near City beaches during summer months.

According to the DEP's soon to be released Harbor Water Quality Survey of 1999, DEP found fecal coliform bacteria to have decreased from 2000 cells per 100 milligrams to levels below 100 cells per 100 milligrams from 1974 to present.


The last report of needles washing ashore was in 1998 and the Department of Parks was not aware of any more recent appearances. "The beaches are very clean" said Amy Chiu, a spokesperson at Parks and Recreation, "and we are taking good care of them."

Perhaps anxiety over the West Nile Virus contributed to the reduced numbers at the beaches, but if so, needlessly. "The types of mosquitoes carrying the West Nile virus are most active from dusk to dawn," explained Gadd from the Department of Health. The precautions to cover up only apply to those hours.

Swimming after dusk can also be hazardous. A mother and her six-year old daughter drowned while swimming after seven at night at Rockaway Beach on June 25th. The lifeguards go off-duty at six. And an 11-year old boy also drowned this summer on a private beach in the Rockaways outside the city's jurisdiction. There was no lifeguard.


Fear of a lifeguard shortage at the beginning of the season sparked a massive recruitment effort outside of the city, including a call to "able bodied American's everywhere: Don't you owe New York something for all it's done for you," mentioning fashion, Broadway and Seinfeld as good reasons to "give back" and become a lifeguard. Although the Department of Parks couldn't say how many lifeguards they employed from out of town, apparently this effort paid off and all the beaches were covered.

It was starting to look like rain again as Sergey Fedorovskiy was relieved from his lifeguard chair. He stretched out for his break on a reclining lounger at the foot of the lifeguard station. "We like the rain," he said, and smiled, as he closed his eyes. Fewer people at the beaches make at least some people happy.

Peter B. Fleischer, currently writing a book on the New York City waterfront, was formerly a transportation and environment policy advisor to New York City Mayors David Dinkins and Rudy Giuliani.

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