New DPH beach rules cast a wide net

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health will implement state-wide rules that will impose new reporting and posting requirements for public and semi-public beaches across Martha’s Vineyard, including some of the Island’s most exclusive lengths of ocean sand.

The new rules include a definition of a semi-public beach that would encompass many Island beaches, particularly some exclusive association and neighborhood properties along the south shore, to which access is through a locked gate, as well as hotel, motel, camp, and club beaches.

Beginning May 28, each “beach operator” will be required to obtain a permit from the local board of health to operate a public or semi-public bathing beach and post a permanent sign at the beach entrance or parking lot, indicating the dates of operation of the bathing beach and contact information.

“At minimum,” the law states, “the sign must state the dates of operation, the name and telephone number for the beach operator, permit number, and note that the beach is not monitored for bacteria outside of the specified date range.”

The new rules are amendments to existing state codes instituted in 2001 that, with some specific exceptions for granting variances, required weekly testing of beaches and prescribed notifications requirements for beaches that failed to meet state water standards.

Island health agents and conservation organizations such as The Trustees of Reservations (TTOR) and the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank, that manage a number of beaches, have been cooperatively testing beach water quality for years. In many cases, Island beach managers have qualified for a variance from weekly testing based on the results of two complete and consecutive bathing seasons.

The addition of a definition of semi-public beaches and the added permitting requirements are the most significant changes to the law, local health agents said.

In a recent telephone conversation with The Times, Matt Poole, Edgartown health agent, questioned the practical purpose of the law with regard to Island beaches.

“Every Tuesday morning, when I ran around drawing samples from South Beach, knowing that if I swam the right distance and right direction the nearest landfall is Spain,” Mr. Poole said, “I just questioned the priorities of testing those kinds of water bodies.”

Mr. Poole said there needs to be a source for whatever contaminant the testing is designed to reveal. He said in this case it would be surface water runoff, and that is unlikely along South Beach.

Mr. Poole said that after two full seasons of no results he was able to scale back South Beach testing to a monthly schedule.

Mr. Poole said the major changes this season would include permitting beaches that previously were not part of the testing regimen and requiring signs. “I mean we are as unhappy about this as the Black Point Beach Association,” he said.

Local boards of health can charge a fee for permits. Mr. Poole said he would not be surprised to see fees added in the future.

He and other health agents and property managers have been testing Island bathing beaches weekly for years. They take the samples to the Dukes County administration building where they are placed in a refrigerator. On a rotating basis, one of the health agents ferries the samples to the Wampanoag Tribe’s water testing facility.

“We’ve coordinated our efforts and made the best of something that really is not a high priority for the majority of our beaches,” he said. “There are a few where it is important, but for the majority it is not a good use of our time.”

Beyond the need to get a permit, Chris Kennedy, TTOR regional supervisor, said the changes in the law would not add any new wrinkles because he now tests all of the Trustees’ ocean beaches on a routine monthly basis.

Matthew Dix, land bank property manager, said the sign and permit requirements are the only changes that would have an effect. He said he checks some beaches on a monthly basis and others on a weekly basis.

He said the state reimburses the Land Bank for the cost of testing, but there is still a cost.

“It is time-consuming for my staff,” he said.

For example, the land bank owns strips of barrier beach on several south shore great ponds. Each sampling requires a crossing by boat or kayak. “It takes one person in the summer two days to do all my beaches, and I don’t have that many beaches,” he said.

Mr. Dix said that given the number of entities, the requirement to test small properties along the south shore seems redundant.

Asked how the changes in the law would affect groups like the Quansoo Beach Association, made up of property owners who own a narrow strip of barrier beach on Tisbury Great Pond, West Tisbury health agent John Powers said that, based on the definition, the association would require a permit and need to erect a sign.

The Island’s only public freshwater swimming beaches, Uncle Seth’s Pond and Ice House Pond, are located in West Tisbury. Mr. Powers said he does receive calls from people interested in pond water quality.

Mr. Power said he has sent permit applications to a number of groups in town that include TTOR, Focus, which owns a camp on Seth’s Pond, and the land bank. Many of the groups are already on a testing schedule.

“Some are weekly, some are monthly, some every two weeks,” he said. “I’ve been testing up-Island for about 24 years, so it’s pretty routine for me.”

Mr. Powers said that once a determination is made that other existing beach organizations are semi-public, they would be included in the testing process. The West Tisbury board of health has discussed charging for permits but has not made any decision on fees, he said.

Mr. Powers said there are provisions in the law that would allow organizations that share a common stretch of beach to do one test.

“We have been trying to find ways so that 16 people do not end up driving to Aquinnah every week, and we do a lot of projects like that,” he said.