The first ocean-water tests of the season this week found clean beaches from Barnegat Light all the way to Cape May Point.

Bacteria counts met safe standards for swimming at all 188 sites sampled, the state Department of Environmental Protection said.

The Cooperative Coastal Monitoring Program tests 188 sites along the southern New Jersey coast every week between Monmouth and Cape May counties.

"New Jersey was the model for the EPA's (Environmental Protection Agency's) national beach program. We've had our monitoring program in place since 1975," said Virginia Lofton, who oversees the testing program for the state.

The DEP also flies over the beach six times per week during the summer looking for signs of trouble: surface slicks, marine debris, broken sewer mains or other indicators of pollution.

This year, the state will keep watch for any evidence that the BP PLC oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has reached New Jersey's shoreline, Lofton said.

If lab samples find high counts of bacteria called enterococcus, the counties take a second sample at the test site as well as at beaches north and south of the hot zone to determine the extent of the contamination, she said.

If a second reading finds high bacteria counts, the state closes the beaches, she said. Many of the high readings recorded in southern New Jersey are temporary fluctuations caused by pollution that washes into the ocean through storm drains after a heavy rainfall, she said.

In many cases, the contamination readings return to normal the following day, so no closing is warranted, she said.

For example, beaches last year at Illinois and Texas avenues in Atlantic City tested high for bacteria Aug. 3 but returned to normal by Aug. 4. And 45 other beaches sampled from Longport to Brigantine had good water quality every week of the beach season last year.

The same thing happened several times in Ocean County, which saw high bacteria counts over a single day in at least 15 municipalities but only required temporary closings in Point Pleasant, Beachwood and Pine Beach.

In Atlantic County, 45 other beaches sampled found no problems with bacteria all season long.

"We have been sampling beaches for over 20 years. The water quality is excellent," said Patricia Diamond, Atlantic County's public health officer.

She said more people are cleaning up after their dogs, which prevents bacteria-laden droppings from getting into the water. And tourists are doing their part to keep the beach free of litter, she said.

"It takes constant vigilance. The resource is very precious and needs to be treated as such," she said.

Last summer, Cape May County temporarily closed the beach in Beesleys Point in Upper Township after a May 22 sample tested above the safe standard. And a beach at Second Avenue in North Wildwood tested high for bacteria one day.

But the rest tested clean from May to September.

"I want the public to be reassured where they are swimming that there is healthy water," Cape May County Health Director Kevin Thomas said.

While these beaches will not see many swimmers for a week or two, Thomas said early testing helps his department identify problems such as sewer lines that ruptured over the winter.

"Towns gear up for the summer by cleaning out the storm drains. If there are cracks from freezing and thawing of the drains, that could be detected by sampling," he said.

In Avalon on Monday, Honey McLaughlin waded out into the 57-degree water off the 40th Avenue beach with a small plastic bottle in hand.

The beaches in both directions were virtually deserted. But that will change dramatically in the next week or so.

She and Erin Wertz work as environmental health specialists for the Cape May County Health Department. Most of the year, they inspect the cleanliness of restaurants.

But this week, she donned a neoprene wet suit to collect ocean water samples.

"We're the canaries in the coal mine," Wertz said.

In Avalon, the water was bracingly cold, despite the protective clothing. McLaughlin waded in the surf up to her waist and submerged one of the plastic bottles, uncapping it about a foot beneath the incoming waves.

That is where children most susceptible to bacteria spend most of their time playing.

After capping the sample, she waded back to the truck where Wertz was filling out forms.

McLaughlin put the sample in a blue cooler full of ice, which keeps the bacteria from reproducing unnaturally until they get the samples back to the lab in Middle Township.

Wertz and McLaughlin routinely swap duties each week. One drives the county truck and fills out forms while the other takes the polar plunge.

"It beats sitting in the office. It makes the week go faster," Wertz said.

"The beginning of the season can be tough," McLaughlin said. "By the end of the morning, you can't feel your legs."

"But the summer makes up for it," Wertz said. "In July, the ocean water is beautiful."

Tourists appreciate the efforts. Jean Marie Vogler, of Winchester, Va., combed the beach for shells in Avalon on the same strand where the health workers took samples Monday. Past the dunes was a freshwater wetland full of cattails where red-winged blackbirds called.

"Of course, water quality is important to me. We've been coming to Avalon for years," Vogler said. "They keep things very pristine and protect the wildlife."

Vogler has a summer home in Avalon.

"New Jersey must be doing something right. The beaches are much cleaner now than they have ever been," she said.

Contact Michael Miller:

609-272-7247

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