Did rains lead to rise in water warnings?
By John Seever
TOLEDO, Ohio - Swimmers at Lake Erie's beaches were greeted
by more warning signs about high bacteria levels in the
water this past summer than in the last five years.
There were excessive bacteria readings at Ohio beaches
on 413 days - a big jump over a year earlier when there
were 261 days of high readings.
Blame it on the rain, say those who oversee water quality
for the state.
Heavy storms throughout the summer washed farm animal
waste and fertilizers into streams and rivers that flow
into the lake. They also caused storm sewers to overflow
and dump sewage into the water.
And the storms also stir up contaminants that settle
on the lake's bottom.
All of this contributes to higher bacteria levels.
Four beaches - Catawba Island State Park, Conneaut Park,
East Harbor State Park and Fairport Harbor - this past
summer had their first high bacteria readings in five
"In just about every case it was the rain,"
said Steve Binns, who oversees the state health department's
water safety program.
It was an unusual year because during the past decade,
water quality along the shoreline has improved.
Jeffrey Foran, an aquatic toxicologist, said that while
heavy rains may have been a factor for a rise in water
warnings, it certainly wasn't the only one.
In fact, he said studies in Wisconsin couldn't find a
correlation with rainfall and bacteria levels.
"It's what the rain is washing into the water that
we need to be concentrating on," Foran said. "It's
all of the stuff that's being deposited."
"Don't blame it on the rain," said Foran, president
of Citizens for a Better Environment, a Milwaukee-based
advocacy group for the Great Lakes region.
The state uses a measurement of E. coli or fecal coliform
bacteria content to determine whether water is safe.
High bacteria levels can cause ear infections and mild
flu-like symptoms, including upset stomachs, diarrhea,
nausea and abdominal cramps.
Warnings posted at beaches are aimed at children, elderly
and people with weak immune systems, but health officials
say healthy adults also should avoid swimming at those
areas for a day or two after a heavy rainfall.
Many septic tanks - a major contributor to the bacteria
levels at the beaches - have been repaired along the western
edge of the lake to stop sewage from leaking into groundwater.
Cleveland and Toledo are beginning major projects to
repair their outdated sewer systems to stop untreated
sewage from spilling into waterways and the lake.
"It takes a lot of money," Binns said. "It
takes a lot of time."
Binns said that homeowners can help with the cleanup
also by making sure their septic systems aren't leaking.
But environmental advocates say the results of Ohio's
water surveys show much more needs to be done.
"It's certainly troubling particularly if it's traced
back to a sewage problem," said Sandy Buchanan, executive
director of Ohio Citizen Action.