It’s July. It’s Saturday, and the city has turned out to catch some sun.
While the seven city parks department beaches meet federal health standards and attracted an estimated 15 million visitors last year, they have their shortcomings. It’s the litter, it’s the water quality, say beachgoers. Overall, our city beaches have an inferior reputation — some say unjustly — compared to suburban sunbathing spots.
Officials, advocates and others argue the city shore offers amenities you can’t get on Long Island — swimming with a view of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge or being able to leave nature’s waves for the ups and downs of The Cyclone — and the quality of its facilities has improved.
Urban beaches, though, pose special challenges for the parks officials who run them. The shore offers relief from our cement landscape but it also is very much a part of the city. That gives the beaches a kind of gritty charm but also presents huge problems in terms of pollution, debris and ordinary litter.
While littering can threaten the water quality, the larger danger is the city’s combined sewer and stormwater system, which covers about 60 to 65 percent of the whole city. Heavy rainfalls overwhelm the sewage plants and cause untreated sewage and stormwater to run off into our water bodies. More than one-tenth of an inch of rain can cause the sewage system to reach capacity and overflow into the ocean or the Long Island Sound.
“Absolutely, positively, there is no doubt about that,” said Councilmember James Gennaro, the chair of the council’s Environmental Protection Committee, calling the combined sewer system the biggest threat to our water quality. “This is the gospel.”
There have been significant improvements — in the 1980s the system caught 30 percent of the overflow, it now contains more than 70 percent. Years ago, it was not uncommon for medical waste or other “objectionable material” to wash up on the beach said Department of Parks and Recreation Deputy Commissioner Liam Cavanagh. Now it is extremely rare that a public beach will be closed because of water quality.
According to a report from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which oversees bacteria testing in the city’s waterways, the city did not close any beaches due to water quality in 2007, compared to two closures in 2006. It issued 24 wet weather advisories — pre-emptive warnings to the public to avoid the water after heavy rainfalls — up from just 3 in 2006. Those warnings come when rainfall is expected to overflow the sewage system. The increase, the report said, is due to a higher frequency of rainstorms.
Compared to the rest of the state, the city’s beaches are on the cleaner end of the spectrum — with Chautaugua County next to Lake Erie exceeding bacteria standards most frequently in 2006, according to a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council. Queens County ranked third best in terms of the number of beaches that never exceeded state standards for bacteria counts. But other parts of the city did not fare as well. In Staten Island, for example, only a third of the beach never exceeded standards.
According to a report from New Yorkers for Parks, litter was found on 42 percent of city shorelines and broken glass was retrieved on 53 percent of city beaches in 2007.