DPNR restructures beach monitoring program

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ST. THOMAS - While the water-quality of the territory's beaches constantly is being monitored, Department of Planning and Natural Resources officials said Tuesday they are trying to monitor them more efficiently.

Increases in lab test costs have forced a cutback in resources at DPNR related to the monitoring of specific beaches, according to Anita Nibbs, environmental program manager.

"The costs of analyses went way up," she said.

For about a decade, the program has been testing the water in the wading zones of 43 beaches on St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John. The tests indicate the presence of bacteria.

In years past, the program has received a grant of about $303,000 annually to conduct the weekly tests. However, this year's grant was for $287,000, and next year, the program is expecting to receive $293,000, Nibbs said.

Nibbs did not address a recent report by the Environmental Protection Agency that found that DPNR did not have a contract with the company collecting beach monitoring samples and had not paid the company for sampling work since July 2012.

The report also found that in violation of the terms of its Beach Act grant, DPNR did not monitor the beaches on St. Thomas and St. John between February 3 and 16. DPNR restarted beach sampling on Feb. 17.

The report recommended that the EPA regional administrator determine whether DPNR has a sustainable beach monitoring program in place that can provide continuous beach monitoring and adequate public notification. If the finding is that the territory's beach monitoring program is not sustainable, the recommendation is for EPA to manage the program until DPNR can meet EPA guidelines.

While next year's funding will exceed this year's, the cost of lab tests has shot upward, requiring the program to appropriate more money toward the cost of lab tests, according to Nibbs.

As a result, the program recently started monitoring beaches that consistently had excellent readings on a less frequent basis, she said.

At least 33 beaches will be monitored weekly, year-round, though certain beaches will be monitored on a seasonal basis, and others on a conditional basis.

Six beaches are in the seasonal tier, meaning they need to be monitored more heavily during specific seasons.

Three beaches are in the conditional tier, meaning they will not be monitored unless there is something that would cause an imbalance occurs.

Seasonal beaches include: Sprat Hall, Gentle Winds and Columbus Landing on St. Croix, and Morningstar, Limetree and Frank Bay on St. Thomas.

Conditional beaches include: Teague Bay on St. Croix, and Chocolate Hole and Clain Bay on St. John.

"There's a lot of different monitoring that happens," Nibbs said, noting that 160 beaches territory-wide are monitored quarterly. Several organizations besides DPNR also are watching the content of water at beaches, Nibbs said.

DPNR sends weekly advisories based on their tests of wading waters at the beaches they test during that time period, though most of the time there are no issues.

Typically, high bacteria levels are the result of rainfall washing debris and residue into the ocean from onshore, Nibbs said.

- Contact Jenny Kane at 714-9102 or email jkane@dailynews.vi.

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