Signs forbidding would-be bathers were removed from Saugerties village beach last Monday after Ulster County health officials declared the Esopus Creek free open for swimming after measured levels of fecal bacteria decreased to safe levels. No one wants to hear the word “fecal” in the same sentence as mention of their local watering hole, but water-quality readings that detect enterococcus bacteria are fairly commonplace. The health department checks the site four times during the ten-week swimming season.
“The water quality at the beach is not perfect, but it’s generally pretty good,” said Riverkeeper water-quality program director Dan Shapley. “This happens at beaches on occasion, and people shouldn’t be dissuaded from going to the beach because it was closed once. It’s more often safe for swimming than not, according to our data.”
It is a common misconception that heat waves amplify readings of fecal bacteria in water. Shapley said higher readings have nothing to do with heat, and are usually caused by runoff in the aftermath of rainstorms. “Fecal bacteria” does not necessarily refer to human waste. More typically, the findings are caused by other warm-blooded mammals excreting in the in-river environment.
“If it had just rained in the last couple days, I wouldn’t go swimming there myself,” said Shapley.
Mayor Bill Murphy said that the beach closure was longer than necessary due to a communication error between village and county employees. County employees notified village officials that the water was found to be safe in a follow-up test via a voicemail sent to the village hall that wasn’t heard until Monday morning. Murphy says that county officials now have his personal cell phone number to avoid such gaffes in the future.
There are plans to clean the river of other detritus this summer. Pervasive, invasive millifold plants have reached a critical mass this year.
“I’m working with the Town of Esopus and the DEC, and we’re going to try to get the harvester up from the Esopus so we can start packing some of that algae that comes from invasive species,” said Murphy. “Part of the problem with invasive species is that motorboats were banned from the lower creek for the safety of kayakers. They would stir up the water. We’re hoping the harvester could help us clean up. I have everyone involved, the county and the DEC, to make that beach a safe place for kids and adults to utilize.”
“The real problem is that the water sample they took was on June 28 — I know for a fact, after taking a water quality test [that was purchased and read at EnviroTest Laboratory in Newburgh], that it only took 24 hours for my test to come back,” said Gail Porter, owner of kayak rental/touring business I Paddle New York. “They should’ve been able to close the beach on June 30, it wasn’t closed until July 3. Why even test if you aren’t able to react to your information quickly. If you’re not going to test again, why would you test at all? If they’re going to be slow about the data or testing, don’t even test — you aren’t protecting people when it’s bad and you’re not letting people use the beach when it’s good. I tried to call the county to figure out if they had plans — they didn’t call me back. This doesn’t have to take forever.”
While the beach was closed for swimming, the boat ramp was open for boating, Porter noted. “Kayakers don’t always swim, so basically I told people about it when I took a test and they called me with the results on Saturday. It came back really good — it was a 5, which is low. … ‘Don’t touch the water’ — that’s not a conversation I want to have with any of my customers. That’s gross,” Porter said.
Porter took issue with the manner that area news outlets handled the situation, using vague terms like “fecal contamination” that evoked the vision of a substance rather than the presence of a type of bacteria. “You’d think there were logs floating in the water! No one is posting anything now that the beach is open again!”
While signs and police warned swimmers of the fetid conditions of the water, Shapley noted, some residents decided to take a dip regardless. This scenario was a living example of why more frequent water quality testing is essential at public swimming locations, he said.
“The Department of Health’s sampling is relatively infrequent, and so the beach has likely been open on days after rain when the water quality is not suitable for swimming,” said Shapley. “On the other hand, in this case it is likely that a quick followup test following the poor result would have shown a restoration of water quality sufficient to re-open the beach. The public could have enjoyed the Fourth of July and a weekend of playing in the water. Of course, this is speculation, because we don’t have a test result to show that water quality had been restored.”