Sea Levels

S chool’s out, but one more report card is worth reading: Save the Sound’s 2021 Long Island Sound Beach Report, which grades Connecticut and New York beaches from A to F for water cleanliness. This year, though several earned an A+, only one beach in New Haven County made the Connecticut top 10 list: Milford’s Woodmont Beach. Some—including five of West Haven’s nine beaches; Johnson’s Beach and Stony Creek Beach in Branford; and state park beaches at Silver Sands and Hammonasset—earned grades of C+ or lower.

The secret of Woodmont Beach’s success may be its simplicity. The blocks-long belt of fine sand ribbed with coarse pebbles has no snack bar and no bathhouse. A sign at beach’s edge prohibits dogs, fires and ball games. Parking is at a premium, and Woodmont’s warren of one-way residential streets may be enough to deter most would-be bathers who don’t already live there. A friend and I snagged one of the last parking spots around Trubee Doolittle Park one hot Wednesday afternoon. It’s hard to imagine where you’d park on the weekend.

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Save the Sound’s report card looks at one key factor in water samples: the bacteria enterococci, which indicates the presence of human and/or animal feces in the water, “the most common risk when swimming in polluted water.” Data from water quality samples is publicly available from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), but Save the Sound compiles it into an easy-to-use interactive map that also enables a dive into the details. Beach grades are based on testing from both wet days—when stressed sewage systems may run off into the Sound—and dry days, and they consider both the frequency of failed tests and their magnitude—how far above the allowable threshold pathogens were.

The EPA data comes from 2020, but Tracy Brown, Regional Director of Water Protection for Save the Sound, says once you know your beach may be at risk, you can keep a closer eye on it in real time. A “Current Conditions” tab on each beach’s individual page leads to the local agency that conducts its testing; sometimes data is published as it’s collected. If it’s not, you’ll know whom to press for greater accountability. Also, if you know your beach tends to be safe in dry weather but often fails following a rain, Brown says, you can choose to stay away for a day afterward to be safe, especially since test results lag by 24 hours. Beach managers know from experience when the water is likely to be polluted and will close a beach proactively in those conditions, as well as when pathogens exceed the permitted limit. For example, Lighthouse Point Beach, rated B overall, was closed as a precaution last weekend following heavy rains. Subsequent testing has validated that decision.

Pollution can be caused by many factors: geese on the beach, a leaking bathroom, sewage overflow, boats dumping their toilet holding tanks close to shore. The problem is often very localized, Brown says. While West Haven’s Oak Street B Beach earned a C+, the beaches on either side of it—Altschuler Beach and Oak Street A Beach—earned grades of A+. The point is made even more clearly in Milford, where just around the bend from top-scoring Woodmont Beach, the more crowded Anchor Beach, which offers residents-only parking, earned a D at one measurement point and an A+ at another. Hammonasset’s grade of C+ may be somewhat misleading, Brown says, because samples of the stream flowing into the Sound, which is known to be polluted, were mixed with samples from the Sound itself.

Back at Woodmont, my friend and I walked up and down Beach Avenue in a hot breeze to check out Milford’s A+ gem. Then, reporting nearly finished, I left my bag and my sandals on the beach and walked into the bracing water. The bottom was rocky—I should have worn my sandals—and unpredictable, with abrupt rises and drops. I dove in, and the cold stole my breath for a moment. Then I tipped on my back for a refreshing float, confident the water buoying me was clean.

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. All images taken at Woodmont Beach.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg's associate editor. She's also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Her perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the green and a coffee milkshake.

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