An example of a totally useless water quality report: NYC Department of Health
Why? They are never correct...list good water on the worst days, bad water on perfectly clean days...a total waste of our tax dollars and time.
Testing the Water
It's Friday afternoon, and Rosemarie Soldi points to a coffee cup and a piece of plastic next to her on the sand at West Haven beach. Nowadays, she only goes into the water up to her waist. "I would not take my granddaughter to swim here," she says. She has watched the beach become dirtier and dirtier in the 30 years she's lived here.
When West Haven's water is dirty — too dirty by state standards — the town's Public Health department doesn't let beachgoers know. According to an Advocate investigation, West Haven is the only one of five shoreline towns (New Haven, Branford, East Haven, West Haven and Milford) that hasn't closed its beach or posted a dirty-water advisory at all since 2003. But last summer alone, 19 water samples from West Haven exceeded the safety limit suggested by the state.
One June day last year was particularly bad: 13 of the 18 water samples taken by the Health Department at different locations along the beach came back above the acceptable bacteria standard, but Connecticut's longest public beach remained open for swimming.
The state encourages towns to send beach water samples to its lab for free testing every Monday. The lab counts the number of colony forming units ("cfu") of Enterococcus — a bacteria — per 100 milliliter of salt water. State guidelines consider an Enterococcus reading of more than 104cfu per 100ml of water to be potentially dangerous.
Enterococci are indicator bacteria: If levels are high, there's a good chance of too much human or animal feces, which can carry contagious diseases.
With a result above 104, the state says towns should look for pollution sources at the beach, put up an advisory or close the beach and retest the water as soon as possible. Since this isn't required, some towns close their beaches and others don't.
Because of the time lag between when samples are collected and when results come back — it takes one to three days — some health officials disregard test results. Water conditions may have changed by the time towns are notified of a high bacteria count.
Some officials place more trust in what they see on the beach: If nothing looks suspicious, the beach stays open. Most beach closings and advisories — more than 75 percent between 2003 and 2008 — are due to rain, not high test results. Several towns, like Milford, proactively close their beaches when there's heavy rain. Stormwater runoff picks up pollutants and, in older sewage systems, runs down the same pipes that carry raw sewage to treatment plants. The plants are overwhelmed when it rains, so they dump untreated sewage into Long Island Sound.
Chances are, testing only once a week won't catch most sewage spills. A test taken on a Monday wouldn't detect a pollution incident occurring on Tuesday.
Only occasionally does the test have perfect timing. One West Haven beach sample, taken on June 24 of this year, showed more than 19 times too many Enterococcus bacteria. After the test results came back, Ray Puslys, West Haven's chief sanitarian, walked the beach and discovered the culprit: The city's sanitary sewer line was backed up. He warned the city, which fixed the problem, but not the public. In the meantime, the beach stayed open for swimming.
The tests, West Haven's Puslys argues, are meaningless if water conditions have changed by the time the test results come back days later. "Going by the results," he says, "you tend to close a beach when it should be open and open it when it should be closed."
Because the Enterococcus test is slow and out of date, local public health officials are caught in a difficult position, says Jon Dinneen, a research analyst at the state's Department of Public Health. The federal Beach Act of 2000 required that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) come up with new standards and a faster test by 2005. When that deadline passed, the National Resources Defense Council waged a successful lawsuit against the EPA. The new deadline is 2012.
Dinneen says swimmers should always follow the state's long list of safety guidelines — don't swim with open cuts, don't put your head under water, don't bury friends in the sand, always towel off after swimming. Because you never know when you're swimming in unsafe water.