Open Beaches Belie Chronic Pollution Problems

Beaches in Westchester & Nassau counties were closed preemptively far fewer times in 2014 than in 2013. But don’t be fooled. The improvement is not a sign that the water is getting cleaner. In fact, it’s not a lasting improvement at all.

24 western Sound beaches are preemptively closed each time it rains.

Health departments in both counties ban swimming at certain beaches each time it rains a half-inch or more within 24 hours, because stormwater that flows toward the beaches is contaminated with bacteria. The stormwater leaks from sewers that in many areas are as perforated as Swiss cheese and are unable to handle the increased flow in wet weather. In Nassau County poorly maintained private cesspools and septic systems overflow in wet weather leading to contaminated waterfronts and beach closures.

Ten Long Island Sound beaches in Westchester and 14 in Nassau are affected. The complete list is to the right.

In Westchester, the 10 beaches were closed four days in 2014, for a total of 40 beach days lost to swimmers (the number of beaches multiplied by the number of days). In 2013, the number of beach days lost in Westchester was 138.

In Nassau, as many as 14 Long Island Sound beaches were closed on nine days, for a total of 92 beach days lost. In 2013, the number of beach days lost in Nassau was 153.

So the beaches in Westchester were closed 71 percent less and those in Nassau 37 percent less this summer compared to last.

But it wasn’t a lasting improvement because the reason for the reduction was simply that it rained less, not that the pollution sources were eliminated.

Crumbling, deteriorating, cracked and broken sewers have been a problem in Westchester since at least 1985, which is when the County Health Department first started banning swimming in Mamaroneck Harbor after rainstorms. Eventually beaches in New Rochelle and Rye were added to the list.

Communities are now under order from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to make repairs, but the problem is so widespread and costly to fix that even where there is progress, it is slow.

In Mamaroneck, for example, which is one of six communities whose sewage contributes to the beach closings on the village’s harbor, as much as $3 million has been spent in recent years to re-line about five miles of sewers. But those five miles represent only about 20 percent of the sewers in the village.

In Port Chester, to use another example, the village is in the second year of a sewer repair project that will take five years to complete.

In the meantime, with Save the Sound’s help, sewer repairs are being made as specific, localized problems are found. In August 2013, Save the Sound’s water quality testing team discovered that a broken force main at Otter Creek was consistently pumping raw sewage into the waters near Mamaroneck Harbor. Village officials worked quickly with the pipe’s owner to make a repair.

This spring a Save the Sound volunteer found that a sewer force main running through Westchester County’s Marshlands Conservancy nature preserve, in Rye, was leaking raw sewage through a popped manhole cover. The Westchester County Department of Environmental Facilities sealed the manhole and put into place a new system for county employees to report sewage leaks at all county-run facilities.

In Mount Vernon emergency repairs are being made to chronically leaking city lines after Save the Sound tested water quality in the Hutchinson River, documenting high levels of sewage contamination and calling for immediate repairs.

The sewage leaks are largely out of sight – underground or in rarely-visited places – and the beach closings have become routine.

But neither is acceptable. Save the Sound is working with volunteers to identify sewage leaks and overflows and with local and county government to eliminate them. We will continue with this approach where it is effective, and use community and legal action when it’s not, to make sure all Long Island Sound’s beaches are again available to swimmers every day.

Posted by Tom Andersen, Communications Coordinator in New York for Save the Sound
Cover photo: Abby Archer

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