Cape May, N.J., Earned Its Clean Beach the Hard Way

Nobody passes through Cape May. And fewer still will pass it up. William Thomas Cain/Getty

Nobody passes through Cape May, New Jersey.

“The Nation’s Oldest Seashore Resort” is located at the southern terminus of both the Garden State and the Garden State Parkway. Trace a horizontal line on a map and you will note that it is farther south latitudinally than Baltimore and nearly equal to our nation’s capital.

Cape May, with its 24 beaches in a 2.4-mile span and more than 600 Victorian era homes, is more than a beach town. It is the end of a quest. Other suitors—from Point Pleasant, Spring Lake and Bay Head to Avalon, Sea Isle City and Stone Harbor—have all given a suggestive wink and a smile to sand-starved pilgrims from New York City (158 miles north of Cape May) as they proceed southbound (an equally sizeable number come from Philadelphia). All of these communities are more conveniently located, promising savings in two of summer’s most prized commodities: time and gas.

And yet each summer more than 40,000 temporary residents choose to go all the way to Cape May. None of them accidentally.

“We have 3,800 year-round residents but each July and August that number surges to 45,000,” says Cape May’s mayor, Ed Mahaney. “The cleanliness of our beaches is absolutely essential to our success as a beach community.”

You and I, as we plant our umbrellas in the sand and gaze dreamily at the freshly painted lifeboats, each of them with the words “Cape May” stenciled in red, located adjacent to the lifeguard towers, can afford not to care about the cleanliness of the incoming surf. Mahaney and his inveterate wing man, city manager Bruce McLeod, cannot.

“Each Monday morning of the summer, the county inspects the quality of the water around our beaches,” says McLeod. “Divers take samples from just beyond the storm pipes that lead into the ocean. If there’s a positive result (for bacteria, pathogens, etc.), we and the media are immediately notified. We may have to close a beach. As a town, you start to get a reputation that follows you.”

Thanks to the concerted efforts of Mahaney and McLeod, who between them have a combined five decades of experience in Cape May municipal government, the nation’s oldest seashore resort is also one of the cleanest. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has identified Cape May as one of its 38 “Superstar Beaches,” which is directly correlated not to the quality of the land or the azure sky overhead but to the cleanliness of the water in which bathers frolic.

“We are extremely proud of that,” says Mahaney, who has been involved in the city government since 1995. “That’s no accident.”

In June 1975 the first summer blockbuster film, Jaws, was released. The movie, as you may recall, revolved around the fictional Atlantic beach town of Amity and a battle not just between a prehistoric aquatic beast and man, but between a sheriff concerned with citizens’ physical safety and a mayor worried about the town’s fiscal viability. Blood in the water meant local merchants would be seeing red, too. The original tagline: Don’t go in the water.

That same summer Cape May’s beaches did find themselves closed. The scourge was not a great white shark but rather fecal coliform bacteria. It would make for a less provocative movie poster, but the effect was no less horrific for Cape May’s economy.

“In the heart of the summer, we were required to put ropes across beach entrances and post signs that read ‘Contaminated,’” laments McLeod. “You can imagine what that looks like on the front page of the newspapers.”

“Our lifeguards still patrolled the beach,” says Mahaney, “but their job was to chase people off it.”

Not long after the Environmental Protection Agency began to take the issue more seriously, and in 1977 the Clean Water Act was passed. What Cape May is to beach-seeking folk is what the ocean once was to pathogens, raw sewage and water-borne toxins: a final destination. And hence the only way to ensure that beaches do not propose a health risk is to eliminate those toxins before they ever reach that final exit.

Beach cleanliness is literally an underground movement. The No. 1 source of beach pollution is storm runoff, and while other sources—fecal matter, vermin, discarded syringes, etc.—make for more horrific headlines, it’s what goes down the drain that can send a beach town’s NRDC rating the same direction.

“Storms are the major factor,” says Mahaney, a white-haired gentleman who comes off more like a school principal (he holds a doctorate in education) than a politician. “They wash down oil from driveways, grease, cat and dog feces.…You have to understand the value of maintaining the infrastructure.”

Translation: a clean and viable underground pipe network in which sanitary, storm and sewage pipes operate independently of one another. Cape May’s subterranean infrastructure is, if not immaculate, about as close as realistically possible.

“We put aside $1.5 million annually to upgrade our sewers,” says Mahaney, “and five years out we know exactly what streets we will be doing.”

Cape May has three full-time pump stations to handle storm overflow; a Ramjet that is akin to a plumber’s snake but on a much larger level; and a street sweeper that completes one lap of the quaint and lush town’s nine miles of roadways each week. It has its own desalination plant as well as online system to monitor every one of the nearly 4,000 water meters in town without needing to send someone out to each house to read the meter. Clearly, staying one step ahead of a positive (which is negative) water quality rating is no day at the beach.

“I remember the first street we dug up to install new sewers when I arrived in 1995,” says Mahaney. “Ocean Street. The main line hadn’t been replaced in nearly 100 years. When we got down to the pipe, do you know what we found? In order to support the pipes, they’d placed overturned bathtubs with bear claws beneath them. Can you believe that?”
Things in Cape May have gone from haphazard to hazard-aware. The “Contaminated” signs are now just a part of history. And while, geographically, it remains the last resort along the Jersey Shore, it is anything but for those who appreciate pristine surf.

Nobody passes through Cape May. And fewer still will pass it up.