Why do we care?
Beach closings are highly visible events that can drive away potential visitors and reduce the large revenues that are otherwise generated by coastal tourism. Beaches are closed when water quality is unhealthful for humans; usually due to storm water runoff, elevated levels of bacteria or floating debris; and less frequently to failures in sewage collection and treatment systems. Clearly, such beach conditions are unsustainable both for human health and for the state’s tourist economy.
How are we doing?
As Figure 36.1 shows, there has been a rapid drop in New Jersey beach closings between 1988 and 1991, and rates have largely leveled off since then. Systematic monitoring of beach closings and water quality began in 1988 in response to the high level of closings in the 1980s, so comparable data are not available to track general trends before then. However, we know that the a single treatment plant malfunction was responsible for the high levels in 1988, so the drop between 1988 and 1989 is not reflective of a greater trend. The general trend since then is improving.
What is behind these figures?
The monitoring program begun in 1988 tracks sources of the contamination causing the beach closings. Water quality measurements and aerial surveys are employed to determine if there are any illegal discharges into coastal waters or any visible water quality problems, such as algal blooms, malfunctioning sewer lines or pumping stations. It counts each day on which a beach is closed as one unit, so if a single location were closed for a month, it would be counted as 30 closings rather than one.
The rapid decrease in closings after establishment of the monitoring program suggests that there were a few problem locations that consistently closed nearby beaches. When those problems were remedied the figures dropped substantially. The remaining closures are due to occasional problems rather than consistent ones, and are therefore harder to track down and remedy. The 2001 increase in ocean and bay beach closings is attributed to repeated periods of heavy rainfall and the resulting storm water discharges. Thirty-five of the 40 ocean beach closings were associated with Wreck Pond in the town of Spring Lake. The volume of flow through that pond caused significant flows of an extraordinary amount of bacteria-laden sediment to the ocean. The beaches impacted extended through the 2 miles of Spring Lake for two days in August. The other 5 closings were precautionary. Four were in Atlantic City due to a broken sewer line and one in Long Branch due to a sewage overflow to a storm drain.(1)
Most of the bay beach closings (78%) were at beaches that experience regular, predictable problems following major rainstorms. Large bird populations also contribute to increased levels of bacteria at bay beaches.(2)
Targets with which to assess state progress have not yet been established for this indicator.
(1) DEP. 2001. Clean & Plentiful Water, “INDICATOR: Ocean and Bay Beach Closings”, http://www.state.nj.us/dep/indicators/beach.pdf