splash of safety
quality officials have closed local beaches almost twice
as many days this year as last.
By MARY PASCIAK
When Donna Nichter and her 6-year-old son Kyle headed to
Wendt Beach the other day, they found an orange gate blocking
the path to the beach.
No swimming allowed.
Kyle wasn't too
disappointed, though. He made the most of his time at
the beach, building a "saber-tooth cat cave" out of sand
And anyway, he
understood why the water was off-limits.
"When it rains
half an inch, they don't actually let you go in the water,"
he said. "So they close it down a day or two, but you
can still come down and make mud pies. That's what the
lifeguards told us."
The mud pies
are recommended only on a case-by-case basis, but closing
the county beaches after a heavy rain is mandatory.
Tuesday was the
second time this summer that Wendt Beach was closed as
a precautionary measure.
As summer 2002
draws to its end, the five beaches monitored by the Erie
County Health Department have been closed a total of 19
days this year as of Friday, about twice as many as last
The worst patch
was a four-day streak at the end of July, when three were
closed after a heavy rain.
But it's a far
cry from a very rainy summer two years ago, when they
were closed for a total of nearly 100 days. The way the
beach closing days are counted, every day each beach is
closed counts as one closing day. So if three beaches
are closed on one day, it counts as three closing days.
"This is a good
year. There were sporadic rains earlier in the season,
and then one really big rainstorm at the end of July,"
said Peter Coppola, associate public health sanitarian
with the Erie County Health Department.
It was a perfect
day for the beach Tuesday, when the Nichters trekked from
their house in Glenwood to Wendt Beach in Derby. The sky
was sunny, the temperature was pushing 80, and the waves
on the quest for the perfect beach," Donna Nichter said.
In the process,
Kyle is becoming quite the veteran beachcomber. In their
three trips to Wendt this month, he has netted a $1 bill,
a bunch of pink and purple semi-deflated ballons, and
a slab of slate big enough to serve as a decent chalkboard
helped ease the disappointment of finding the water off-limits
earlier this week - the first time the Nichters found
swimming banned at Wendt - when the afternoon was ideal
for the beach, but rain the night before had triggered
the automatic closing policy at beaches monitored by Erie
is determining factor
main factor in determining whether to close the water
is the water - the stuff that falls from the sky.
Whenever it rains
half an inch or more in 24 hours, as a precaution, Erie
County officials automatically close the two county beaches,
Wendt and Bennett, as well as the other beaches it monitors:
Lake Erie, and the town beaches in Evans and Hamburg.
made county health officials wary.
rains cause storm sewers to overflow, and the rainwater
spills over into the sanitary sewers. When they exceed
capacity, raw or partially treated sewage washes out into
creeks and streams that empty into Lake Erie, ultimately
causing bacteria levels at the beaches to skyrocket.
Erie County officials
used to test beach water during periods when there had
been no rain. Three years ago, Coppola said, the county
introduced the mandatory beach closings and water testing
after heavy rainfall.
"We do that to
just to keep people in the county safe," said Mark Galvin,
the park superintendent who oversees Wendt and Bennett
"If you test
the beaches during the time when there's no problems,
you're not really testing it during the worst-case scenario.
When they're dry, that's when they used to test the beaches,"
Coppola said. "What we're saying is we're going to test
the beaches when it's most likely they're going to be
bad. It's a lot more rational than testing when we know
the water's going to be good."
In addition to
the county beaches, there are three state-run beaches
in Erie County - Woodlawn, Evangola and Beaver Island.
New York also operates Wilson-Tuscarora State Park in
The state beaches
are tested about five times a month, except for Woodlawn,
which is tested almost every day. In the recent past,
Woodlawn has often been closed at least two weeks each
year. Evangola and Beaver Island, on the other hand, rarely
close. Wilson-Tuscarora was closed for nine days in July.
Complete tallies on this year's closings for the state
beaches in the region were not immediately available.
Erie County is "a poster child for sewage problems" in
New York State, officials here are doing a good job of
being proactive when it comes to protecting beachgoers,
according to one environmental watchdog group.
very cautious because of the overflow of these sewers.
Closing a beach after a rainfall not necessarily a common
practice," said Sarah Meyland, the state executive director
of Citizens Campaign for the Environment.
Erie County officials
also get high marks for their thorough testing procedure,
she said. When they test beach water every week or two
and after every heavy rain, they test for four things:
E. coli, fecal coliform, total coliform and enterococcus.
Those bacteria could cause symptoms such as diarrhea,
fever, ear infections, sore throat or respiratory problems
for as long as two weeks for swimmers.
"I would say
they look to have the most complete analysis of just about
anybody. They're looking for everything there," Meyland
said. "It sounds like they're definitely doing what they
need to be doing. They're on top of the situation."
The county has
been working for years to improve water quality at the
beaches, Coppola said.
have been testing septic systems across the county, identifying
those that are failing.
In some cases,
the problem septic systems are corrected. In others, households
relying on septic systems are added to local sewer districts.
And sewer treatment
plants are getting better, too. A few years ago, for instance,
the Big Sister plant in Angola built a reservoir to hold
overflow sewage when downpours cause the sewers to exceed
Those sorts of
improvements are making a difference, officials say.
"I know for a
fact they're helping," Coppola said.
have been helping beach water quality, too - but the county
Health Department can't take the credit.
As farms fade
from the local landscape, the amount of fertilizer seeping
into the soil and making its way into the creeks decreases,
in agriculture may not be good for the area, but it's
good for the beaches," he said.
officials ponder things like septic systems and sewer
treatment plants, the average beachgoer thinks about just
one thing: Can I go in the water?
A day at the
beach is always nice, soaking up sun and playing in the
sand. Still, even for kids like Kyle who aren't yet able
to swim without the help of floaties, the beach is really
about the water.
"I don't go swimming
yet anyway," he said with a shrug. "But I play with the