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Monitoring City Beaches

by Sam Williams, Jul 09, 2004
 

A city employee by day, Jim Scarcella begins his second life as a volunteer beach monitor the moment he reaches his Midland Beach home on Staten Island. At least once a week, you'll find him patrolling the local sand, picking up trash and filling out litter surveys for the Department of Environmental Protection.

"You name it, I've probably found it on the beach," says Scarcella with a laugh.

Scarcella, who also happens to serve as the head of the Natural Resource Preservation Association, a New York City group dedicated to improving the aquatic environment, knows that not everybody shares his zeal. Still, he is happy to report some notable signs of progress. Gone are some of the problems of the past , the algae blooms that shut down city beaches in 1976 and the medical waste scares that kept bathers away in 1987. Barring the occasional bacteria advisory from the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, things are good and getting better, at least from the perspective of a guy who first started volunteering in 1990.

"I think we're making strides," Scarcella says. "I'm fortunate in that I like doing this, though. I went to the beach today with my son and his friend and picked up another 30 pounds of litter."

In a city with few environmental success stories, the improving state of local beaches is worth celebrating, if not too loudly. Sure, the city, state and federal agencies that oversee water safety have had their occasional differences. In a recent issue New York magazine article, for example, representatives from the mayor's office grumbled about the new EPA bacteria standards -- standards which went into effect this April and which force the city to test for enterococci, a class of pathogens that thrives in untreated animal feces. Still,when you compare water and beach monitoring with other hot-button issues such as national air pollution standards and World Trade Center toxic sampling, the level of inter-agency cooperation is striking.

"It's a priority," says Helen Grebe, head of the Environmental Protection Agency's regional coastal monitoring program, one of at least five local agencies looking to reduce beach pollution. "People want to preserve the region's reputation as a place that still remains in close contact with the water. That's hard to do when you're closing beaches."

For Grebe, keeping the region's reputation in tact means sending out regular helicopter sorties up and down the coast. Each morning, her New Jersey-based monitoring team performs an aerial survey from Cape May to the east end of Long Island, for "floatables" -- waterborne litter -- and oil slicks. If her team finds anything, they quickly report the sighting and location to aquatic cleanup crews.

In New York State, reports of oil are given to the U.S. Coast Guard and floatable pollution to the state Department of Environmental Conservation. Within New York City waterways, the city's own Department of Environmental Protection, operating under its dual authority as guardian of the city's incoming water and chief guarantor of outgoing wastewater quality, has its own fleet of "trash skimmer" boats. Circling the harbor, Jamaica Bay and other, smaller waterways, these funnel-shaped craft vacuum up trash before it gets a chance to reach the beach.

The three-level defense, while effective, is still far from perfect. Like most American cities, New York employs a combined sewer and wastewater treatment system. That means the rainwater hitting streets and the sewage exiting bathrooms both head for the same place: underground catchment basins that serve as a channel to the city's 14 water pollution control plants. According to the Department of Environmental Protection, however, the city's water treatment system is currently equipped to treat only 40 percent of city rainwater. To keep the remaining 60 percent from overloading the system, the city employs combined sewage overflows, essentialy giant underground bathtubs that dump their excess contents directly into local waterways in the event of a major storm or flood. Because floatable pollutants rise to the top and exit the quickest, the clearest indication that local sewers have hit their maximum capacity is the number of plastic items bobbing on the surface of local waterways in the wake of summer storms.

To curb this problem, the Department of Environmental Protection has installed numerous hoods and nets to keep floatables trapped. It has also relied heavily on the six-year-old beach monitor program.

As a member of that program, Scarcella lays out the duties: Volunteers must visit their assigned beach once a week within two hours of high tide. Equipped with stakes and rope, they map out a 200 foot stretch of beach parallel to the shore and count the number of items deposited just below the high water mark. Using a survey sheet provided by the department, volunteers keep track of how many plastic, paper and styrofoam floatables fall within their survey zone. They also take note of living and dead animals in the vicinity and fax the survey results to Robert Gans, program manager for the Department of Environmental Protection's Volunteer Beach Floatable Survey .

"Last year we did a comparsion of 24 beaches," says Gans. "We saw significant increases in waterfowl and fish, which we're taking as a sign of increased water quality and clarity. And we saw significant decreases in plastics and very little medical waste noted."

Gans says he hopes to up the number of monitored beaches to 30 this summer. He also expects to see the number of reported floatables decrease. The spring relaunch of citywide plastic recycling should reduce the number of plastic bottles and bottle caps finding their way into city sewers, he says.

More importantly, the Department of Environmental Protection's own ongoing efforts to upgrade city pollution facilities are starting to pay off in increased water clarity, which is in turn drawing more visitors to the beach. Like many in the beach clean-up game, Gans sees anything that gets New Yorkers to view the local coastline as a recreational destination as opposed to a neglected dumping ground as a "win/win."

Not all volunteers share the same level of optimism, however. Ida Sanoff, a beach monitor in Brighton Beach, says the water at her favorite beach is the cleanest she's ever seen it. Still, it's the growing number of cigarette butts above the tideline that has her concerned.

"People don't realize that clean streets equal clean beaches," she says. "Now with everybody standing outside restaurants and smoking, I can see that that's going to get worse."

Whether or not last year's smoking ban has led directly to more cigarette butts on the beach, one thing is for sure: Cigarette butts are the predominant, individual component of floatable litter. Last September, the American Littoral Society sponsored its annual beach cleanup. After pulling in 334,000 pounds of trash (of which New York City accounted for 152,000) and 220,000 items, volunteers sampled the resulting contents. Their findings: Cigarette litter accounted for 18 percent of all items collected.

Such data highlight the limits of litter policing. To stem the problem at the source, the Department of Environmental Protection has taken to sponsoring a "Clean Streets/Clean Beaches" program with the Metropolitan Transit Authority. The program runs ads on city trains reminding New Yorkers that sidewalk litter often goes directly into local waterways. Still, the message doesn't always go through.

"A volunter can count so many cigarette butts it's unbelievable," says Gans, acknowledging the problem. "If they're really diligent about it, they can get up to 150, 160 and still be counting."

Fortunately, many of the volunteers who help the city patrol its coastline are the same people helping to bolster its educational efforts. Joel Banslaben is chairman of the Surfrider Foundation of New York City. He says his organization is planning to launch a storm drain stenciling program. Modeled on successful efforts in California and around Maryland's Chesapeake Bay, the program spray paints "drains to bay" advisories directly onto stormwater basins and city culverts, explicitly reminding passersby that whatever they drop in the gutter might be waiting for them the next time they visit Coney Island or Orchard Beach. Another Surfrider education program already experiencing success is the Respect the Beach program, which brings school-age children from Manhattan and Brooklyn out to the Rockaways to help with Clean-up, learn about stormwater runoff and finish the two day camp taking surf lessons.

"You need to establish programs that lead people to treat the water with the respect it deserves," Banslaben says. "People want to get reconnected with the waterfront." 


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