Opinion: Time to Determine Cause of Beach Closings

What if residents of our communities along Huntington Bay could do something to prevent beach closings during the summer? Would they act?

That’s my question after I decided to investigate the causes of beach closings that occurred with regularity this summer after every heavy rain.

On the hot and sticky days that characterized this summer, kids ready to cool off in the calm water of Huntington Bay were greeted with “Beach Closed” signs all too often.

            The Suffolk County Heatlh Department had closed the beaches due to “bacteria and fecal contamination.”

            According to information from a website called Sound Health Explorer the closings were projected to occur as few as 5% of the time at Crescent Beach, for example, and from 18 to 23% of the time at Gold Star Battalion Beach, with others like the private Bay Hills Beach closing from 6 to 11% of the time.

            What exactly does bacteria and fecal contamination mean? Since the closings mostly occur after heavy rain, what is going on? Is the problem seepage from our old-fashioned cesspools? Or is it rainwater run-off contaminated with dog and cat feces and other materials that people put on the ground?

            Surprisingly, no one seems to know. According to Senior Public Health Sanitarian Mike Jensen of the Health Department’s Bureau of Marine Resources, no analysis has been done of the bacteria and fecal matter after rainstorms to determine its origin.

            If the pollution is due to cesspool seepage, then the fix is difficult and expensive and not likely to be done any time soon. But if it is dog and cat feces, then pet owners might be persuaded to become diligent in picking up after their dogs and keeping their cats indoors.

            It’s particularly interesting that Bay Hills Beach with its closing rate of 6 to 11% is no more than 50 yards from Crescent Beach, where closings occur no more than 5% of the time. What’s different about the two beaches? The hillside above Crescent Beach is a preserve and forested, while the Bay Hills community consists of homes and lawns, a web of roads and driveways –lots of paved surface that speeds run-off to the bay–and plenty of pets.

            While we all can personally  take only small steps to combat global warming that cumulatively can matter in the long run, we might be able to actually prevent beach closings if we knew more about the sources of contaminants. But empowering ourselves requires information.  It’s time our local environmental protectors did the necessary analysis of the pollution and gave our communities the chance to directly improve our environment.

Frances Cerra Whittelsey is a former reporter for The New York Times and Newsday. She is a trustee of the Gateway Community Garden in Huntington Station, which she co-founded, and has raised her family in Bay Hills.

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