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Great Lakes Article:

Don't go in the water
Western New Yorkers can sun in the sand, but too often signs say: 'No swimming'

Buffalo News
Tome Ernst and Kerry Jones
07/28/2004

The path that leads to Bennett Beach in Angola offers a picturesque view of Lake Erie, except for one small obstacle: a sign posted on the entrance to the beach which reads, "Closed: No Swimming." It's a familiar sign of summer for Dave Zapiec of Angola, who has been coming to Bennett since he was a young boy living in Buffalo. "If we come out twice during the summer, that's probably it," Zapiec said. "It (used to be) nice. Now it's all deteriorated and nothing gets done."

Another rainy summer has resulted in numerous beach closings. A specific number for Bennett Beach closings was not available, but nearby, in Hamburg, Woodlawn Beach has been closed 11 days this year out of a possible 39, or about 28 percent of the time. Last year, that beach was closed about 22 percent of the time.

But it is reaching the point where nature - not people - deserves most of the blame for the beach closings, officials say. More than $6 million has been spent in recent years on sewer problems affecting Erie County's beaches, and most of the major ones have been fixed. But even if there were no discharge of pollution from faulty sewer systems, it would still be necessary to close the beaches after heavy rains, according to Peter Coppola, associate public sanitarian for Erie County.

Hundreds of square miles drain into the lake and "naturally-occurring elements in nature get flushed out," he said. Bennett Beach is county-run, and by county protocol, if more than half an inch of rain falls within a 24-hour period, the beach is automatically closed. Officials test for strains of E. coli and fecal bacteria, and if either are present, the water is off-limits to swimming. E. coli bacteria occurs in soil where there are warm-blooded animals, so heavy rains are going to cause bacteria levels in the lake to rise.

The situation is much improved over even a few years ago when sewer overflows from heavy rains were routinely blamed for beach closings. Woodlawn Beach, which is state owned, closes automatically if there is an overflow at an area sewage treatment plant and did so again last weekend. Even so, Coppola maintained, sewage plants "are not a major contributor" to beach closings. "We should emphasize how good the beaches are because of their wonderful ability to regenerate themselves," he said.

Woodlawn and Bennett generally are the most-closed beaches in the area. Beaver Island and Evangola - both state-run beaches in Erie County - rarely close. In Niagara County, Wilson-Tuscarora State Beach was closed four days in the past week because of algae levels. A sewer project there has helped keep that formerly problem beach open most of the time.

In southern Erie County, the situation can change daily. The water at Woodlawn Beach, for example, was closed last Monday afternoon, but the next day it was open and residents came out in droves. Mary Ellen Danyluk of Hamburg brought her mother and kids to Woodlawn on Tuesday, saying she isn't discouraged or worried when the water is closed. "I'm just disappointed that the lake isn't clean enough in its natural state," she said. "I'm concerned about the level of bacteria, but I put my trust in the agencies that do the testing. I'd rather be told not to swim if it's not safe."

Richi Alberts has owned Mickey Rats & Captain Kidd's Restaurant in Angola-On-the-Lake for 28 years. How does he rate this summer? "It's been the most atrocious summer, and I've been doing this for a number of years," he said. "It's been a little devastating. . . . Why would people even think about coming out to the beach if they can't swim?" Alberts said there have been only about six good "beach days" so far this summer, when weather was optimal and the beaches were crowded. He said that because his establishment also has an indoor restaurant and nightclub, business is not totally contingent on the beach, but it certainly doesn't help when the water is closed.

Charles J. Alessi, county deputy commissioner of environment and planning, said the situation at the beaches has improved, but there is plenty of room for more. Both the town and village of Hamburg are under orders to lessen their discharges, he said. Gerald F. Mikol, regional director for the state Department of Environmental Conservation, said "every Great Lakes municipality of any size" has the same problem: old sewer systems that can't handle a deluge. But there is no funding available to remedy those situations.

The Citizens Campaign for the Environment said the situation will improve only if government makes it a priority. "Funding is a big issue, but we urge people to make it a priority," said Brian Smith, area program coordinator. Hamburg Town Engineer Gerard M. Kapsiak agreed with Mikol that most of the other major problems have been corrected and now smaller sources are being sought.

Owners of older homes need look no further than their front yard to spot a possible source of pollution. Unless they have had their lateral sewer - the one leading from the house to the sewer in the street - replaced in recent years, it likely is broken in places and allowing rain water to seep in and add to the overflow problem, he said. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has done studies indicating that 75 percent of sanitary sewer overflow is caused by faulty lateral sewers, Kapsiak said.

But it is a touchy issue because the laterals are on private property and it takes a special camera inside the sewer line to spot most leaks. And repairs run from $2,000 to $3,000 "for something you don't see," Kapsiak said. The state spent $6.3 million to purchase Woodlawn State Park in 1996, only to have it closed to swimming more than half of the possible swimming days the following year.

But things steadily improved and it was open 84 percent of the possible swimming days in 2002 before dropping to 78 percent last summer - another wet one, according to state parks officials.

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