Don't go in the water
Western New Yorkers can sun in the sand,
but too often signs say: 'No swimming'
Tome Ernst and Kerry Jones
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
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.