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Great Lakes Article:

Beach bacteria study points to river, ditch
By Tome Henry
The Toledo Blade
11/29/03


While cautioning they are a long way from cracking the mysterious bacteria problem that has plagued the Lake Erie beach at Maumee Bay State Park, researchers say a new study has led them to identify two streams as major pathways.

One is a ditch that flows through the center of the park. The other is the Maumee River, with a particular focus on its shipping channel.

"Weíre going to concentrate on these hot spots," said Donna Francy, a U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist from Columbus whoís one of the lead researchers.

Ms. Francy recently provided first-year data from a three-year sampling study to members of a multiagency bacteria task force. The latest study is being done by her agency and the University of Toledo, with the Toledo Metropolitan Area Council of Governments helping to coordinate it.

Thousands of dollars and a decade of research preceded this latest study, resulting in only two known villains: ducks and geese. Waterfowl waste long has been singled out as the primary source of bacteria at the parkís man-made lake and the beach that surrounds it. Controlling bacteria there has been fairly simple: Shoo away the birds.

The parkís Lake Erie beach and the waves that lap upon it have been a whole other matter. There are many theories for why bacteria exist in that part of the lake. This yearís preliminary results could help officials shape up their attack strategy for 2004, although they caution against jumping to conclusions.

"One summer isnít representative of the whole picture," Ms. Francy said.

Officials said they heard enough evidence to discount the theory that FirstEnergy Corp.ís Bay Shore plant in Oregon might be a contributor to the problem.

The power plant has an enormous water intake that likely affects the flow of bacteria-laden water along Oregonís lakeshore to some degree. But it does little, if anything, to make the problem worse, the study found.

The study found that the difference in bacteria levels between whatís drawn into the plant and whatís discharged from it at sites just west of Maumee Bay State Park is marginal, according to Mike Oricko, Lucas County environmental health director and task force chairman.

Two previous reports - one in 1996 by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency and another in 1977 by UT - suggested Bay Shoreís discharge had even less bacteria than the water that the plant was drawing into the facility. Those studies had led officials to believe at the time that bacteria drawn into Bay Shore were killed off by a sudden upward jolt in temperature, an effect known as "thermo-shock." At the request of some Oregon officials, though, the task force had agreed to have more sampling done this past summer.

The latest data showed elevated bacteria along a ditch that runs parallel to North Curtice Road, through the center of Maumee Bay State Park. The ditch empties into Lake Erie near the parkís marina, which is next to the Barney Quilter Lodge and just east of the parkís lakefront beach. Bacteria levels have been high at both the lakefront beach and the marina, officials said.

A few years ago, that kind of data would have triggered a predictable response: Find septic tanks at homes and businesses near the ditch that need to be fixed. But after several rounds of dye-testing, officials no longer point at septic tanks.

Even Mr. Oricko, who waged the lengthy campaign to look for homes and businesses that were in violation, said heís convinced septic tanks are no longer the primary source of bacteria in Oregon-area ditches.

Mr. Oricko said this yearís research adds to the growing body of evidence that Great Lakes bacteria are a lot more resilient to weather extremes than previously thought. Officials now believe a fair amount of bacteria harbors beneath sediment, where it is capable of potentially surviving for years. In other words, it doesnít all float in the water column and die off when exposed to sunlight, heat, or freezing temperatures. He said officials hope to eventually expand their sampling program to include winter months.

The bacteria in the Maumee Riverís shipping channel are equally as baffling. For years, Midwestern scientists have viewed it as a stream carrying an immense amount of farm chemicals.

But the source of that bacteria isnít immediately clear.

Theories have abounded for years. Some officials, for example, have said at public meetings they wonder if some improperly treated sewage from Detroitís massive sewage treatment plant, one of the largest in North America, might come down the Detroit River.

But with the high concentrations of bacteria found in the Maumee River shipping channel, officials plan to test farther upstream next summer.

One question that arose this year is whether animal waste from the 103-year-old Toledo Zoo might be a contributing factor. Water and sediment near the zoo will be sampled next summer to see how it compares to other parts of the river, officials said.

Andi Norman, the zooís assistant director of marketing and public relations, said she doesnít expect researchers to find much. Nearly all of the animal waste is scooped up by workers and hauled away daily by a refuse contractor. The only thing that winds up in the sanitary sewer is finely mulched straw and hay bedding, plus the residue thatís washed off cage floors, she said.

Mr. Oricko shrugged when asked if he believes the Maumee Riverís bacteria can be attributed to one or two specific sources.

"If you stop and think about it, the runoff for this entire region ends up in that river," he said. "You donít put a half-million people on the shore of Lake Erie and not have an impact."

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