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Great Lakes Article:

A splash of safety

Water quality officials have closed local beaches almost twice as many days this year as last.

By MARY PASCIAK
Buffalo News
8/23/2002


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 driftwood.

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 year.

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 were playful.

"We're actually 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 at home.

The treasures 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 County.

 

Rain is determining factor

The 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.

Experience has made county health officials wary.

Sometimes heavy 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 beaches.

"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 Niagara County.

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.

 

Watchdog group approves

While 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.

"They're being 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.

 

Treatment plants improving

Officials 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 capacity.

Those sorts of improvements are making a difference, officials say.

"I know for a fact they're helping," Coppola said.

Other things 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, Coppola said.

"The decline in agriculture may not be good for the area, but it's good for the beaches," he said.

While health 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 waves."

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