Beach bacteria study points to
By Tome Henry
The Toledo Blade
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
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
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
"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."