Reeking runoff water taints Magens Bay beach
Published: July 24, 2010
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ST. THOMAS — Brackish water poured into Magens Bay from a deep breach through the sand Friday, and a sulfuric stench hung in the air nearby.
Magens Bay beach will be closed to swimming until further notice.
Heavy rains caused the mangrove swamp abutting the beach to break at about 5 a.m., sending backed-up stormwater rushing into the bay in a foul-smelling brown torrent that stained the famous blue waters.
The break in the beach is a natural occurrence, according to officials with Magens Bay Authority, which manages the beach. Rain falls on the hillsides over the bay and rushes down into the swamp, they said. When the swamp, which lies in the level land at the back of the park, gets too full, it cuts a path to the bay.
“There’s nothing we can do to stop it,” said Robert Moron, a Magens Bay Authority board member.
The authority’s staff and board members said that rotting leaves and twigs caused the water to smell acrid. Still, fears that stormwater in the swamp contained bacteria prompted the authority to close the beach.
Stormwater can pick up bacteria from animal waste, fertilizers and overflowing septic tanks as it flows downhill, according to Nadine Noorhasen, director of the V.I. Department of Planning and Natural Resources Division of Environmental Protection.
Friday morning, a lifeguard sprung from his chair when he saw Malcolm and Suzanne Curtis wade into the bay end of the beach, where the air was clear and the water less murky.
The couple seemed oblivious to the lifeguard, who whistled and waved his arms as they waded out further. “Ooooh,” the lifeguard groaned as he watched Malcolm Curtis dive in.
The couple, visiting St. Thomas from New Jersey, said that no one warned them about the swimming ban when they paid their $4 entry fees.
“Nobody told us, going into the park, not to go in the water,” Malcolm Curtis said.
A graduate of Harvard University’s School of Public Health, Malcolm Curtis immediately went to wash out his mouth when the lifeguard told him about the brown water flowing into the beach. He said that he has vacationed several times on Nantucket island in Massachusetts, which has similar problems after storms, but “certainly, in Nantucket, you were notified” about possible stormwater contamination.
Suzanne Curtis said that she was disappointed by the murky water, because her “No. 1 reason for coming here was to swim and to snorkel in the warm sea,” and added that she should be notified about the issue before wading into the water.
“I know they count on tourists for their survival, but you don’t want to take advantage of them either,” she said.
When Malcolm and Suzanne Curtis entered Magens Bay Beach, the only notice of the swimming ban was a sign the size of notebook paper taped to a post about 3 feet off the ground.
Asked why the couple was not notified that the beach was closed to swimming when they paid their entry fee, Magens Bay Authority Chairman Aubrey Nelthropp said, “We could tell them ‘no swimming,’ but we don’t want to complicate things.”
An hour later, no tourists could be found on the beach, and Magens Bay Authority Office Manager Pamela Jurgen said the staff had begun informing people of the swimming ban before they paid their entry fee.
Nelthropp said that it will be “at least a week” before the beach is open to swimming again.
Moron said the authority tests the water in the bay twice a month, and the second July test will be Monday.