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Great Lakes Article:

Did rains lead to rise in water warnings?

By John Seever
Associated Press

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 years.

"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.

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