In 1974, New Jersey became the first state to mandate regular monitoring of water quality at beaches for high bacteria levels —and closures if levels are high.
Since then, the Cooperative Coastal Monitoring Program (a coalition of the state D.E.P., coastal county and municipal health departments, and the state Department of Health and Senior Services) has tracked water quality along the state’s 127 miles of coastal beach. Each summer week, water at 325 Shore locations (including 226 recreational sites) is tested for enterococci, a bacteria found in human intestines that is a strong indicator of untreated sewage and pathogens. A beach will be closed immediately if the initial test and an immediate retest reveal more than 104 enterococci per 100 milliliters of water.
The Natural Resources Defense Council reports that in 2006 (the most recent year available) New Jersey had a total of 134 beach-closed days. Forty seven of those closings were due to elevated bacteria levels. The remaining 87 were preemptive due to heavy rainfall, which generates runoff that can carry pollutants into swimming areas.
Is Shore water quality getting better, worse, or holding steady? That’s hard to say. The figures bounce around like beachballs. The 134 total closings in 2006 was a step backward from the 79 closings of 2005, but an improvement over 2004’s 168 and 2003’s 188. The most recent low was 33 in 2000.
The CCMP website, njbeaches.org (800-648-SAND), can keep you abreast of all current test results. The NRDC website (oceans.nrdc.org/beachgoers/map) includes up-to-date reports from thirteen popular Jersey beaches, and earth911.org has a map of all Jersey Shore monitoring stations. Do some research before you hit the road, and you can be confident that the only things swimming around with you at high concentrations are your fellow bathers.