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Great Lakes Article:

Rains pollute lake, halt swimming at 3 beaches
By Barbara O'Brien
Buffalo News

A warm sunny day like Friday, after five days of rain, seems the perfect day to go to the beach.

But not at Lake Erie beaches.

While state and local officials say the water quality of the lake seems to be improving, going to the beach still means checking the rain gauge while chemists check for bacteria in the water.

Just ask 7-year-old Elizabeth Baker of Atlanta. She's in town visiting relatives and accompanied her mother, aunt, grandmother, sister and cousins to Woodlawn Beach on Friday.

"It rained so much, the water didn't handle it all," Elizabeth said.

That's about right. The beaches are closed after a heavy rainfall because sewers overflowed. Rainwater leaks into the sanitary sewers, sometimes overwhelming the system. That's when they overflow into nearby creeks, which lead to the lake.

"We came to the beach just because it has rained so long," said her mother, Anne Rados Baker. "We needed to get outside."

"I don't know if we would have come if we knew it was closed," added her sister-in-law, Genevieve Rados of Buffalo.

But the children didn't seem to mind eating sandwiches on the beach and playing in the sand and playground.

Major efforts have been made to improve water quality in Hamburg by reducing the number of septic systems and reducing the overflows from sanitary sewer systems that become inundated with water during a rainstorm. That helps with Woodlawn Beach State Park, where water quality has been an issue since it opened in 1996.

"The lake is pretty clean to begin with," said Peter Coppola, associate public health sanitarian for the Erie County Health Department.

Coppola says part of the problem is in the geography, with nearly every stream, creek and river in Erie County flowing into the lake. The waterways carry dirt and silt, which carry bacteria, he said.

"What goes into the lake is part of nature," he said, adding that Lake Erie seems to be able to handle what is flowing into it. "It has this tremendous ability to rejuvenate itself."

It takes time, though. All three of the county's beaches on Lake Erie - Woodlawn Beach State Park and Evans and Hamburg town beaches - were closed to swimming Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, following Tuesday night's drenching.

The county takes water samples from the beaches on Mondays and Thursdays. If there is a major rainstorm or other event, beach personnel take the samples to the county for testing.

"Some of these results are almost drinking-water quality," Coppola said. "It appears every year we're seeing the lake improve."

Woodlawn Beach may have the reputation of being polluted often, but the number of swimming days has steadily increased since the beach opened. State officials say that the reputation is ill-deserved, and that when swimming is allowed, bathers can be certain the water is uncontaminated because the water is tested daily.

Hamburg Town Beach was closed for four days in mid-July, and the county's Lake Erie Beach in Evans was closed three days. The closings correspond to rainstorms that hit the area July 10. But Bennett Beach and Evans Town Beach hadn't closed at all before this week.

Evangola and Beaver Island state parks have had swimming all summer. And Wilson-Tuscarora in Niagara County, which was closed for 28 straight days in 2001, has been closed just two days this summer.

"Any time we close the beach, it's certainly an inconvenience," said Wendy Gibson, a state parks spokeswoman.

Ask the Town of Hamburg. Its Millennium Blast on the Beach featured fun-filled activities at the beach, including swimming, in June 2000. But swimming was prohibited at that beach celebration because of high bacteria counts.

"People, even with the beach closed, loved being close to the water," said Councilwoman Kathleen Courtney Hochul.

Today is the fourth Blast on the Beach, with swimming, watercraft rides, sand castle contests, volleyball, food, entertainment - including Lance Diamond - and fireworks planned. While they weren't happy with a possible swimming ban, organizers weren't too worried because there are many other events planned.

"The beach is a beautiful backdrop. Even if you can't go into the water, the show will go on," Hochul said.

Sewer systems in the Town of Hamburg and Village of Blasdell have been seen as the major culprits behind the closing of Woodlawn and Hamburg beaches. More than $4 million has been spent to upgrade sewer systems and build sewers to replace aging septic systems.

"The overflows are less in volume and less frequent than they used to be," Hamburg Town Engineer Gerard M. Kapsiak said. "I would say we've eliminated at least 75 percent of the overflow."

"There still remains a huge problem of sanitary sewer overflows in the area," said Brian Smith of Citizens Campaign for the Environment.

They're expecting sewers will improve the water quality in Wilson, where bids will be opened next week for sewers for the 85 cottages on Sunset Island in Lake Ontario.

Wilson Supervisor Jerry Dean said he believes the town's efforts to clean silt and debris from Twelve Mile Creek, next to Tuscarora beach, have improved water quality.

"There wasn't a good flow to it," he said. "We should be able to talk next year and not talk about closings."

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