pollute lake, halt swimming at 3 beaches
By Barbara O'Brien
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
"It rained so much, the water didn't handle it all,"
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
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
"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
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
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
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