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Pollution Takes Joy Out of Day at the Beach: Bacteria Often Put Swimming Off Limits

July 30, 2008

By John F. Bonfatti, The Buffalo News, N.Y.

Jul. 30–With a car full of bathing suit-clad youngsters, Laura Goetz pulled up Tuesday to Woodlawn Beach State Park in Hamburg, to be told no swimming was allowed.

“They said, ‘We’re going to the beach, and we can’t swim? Why are we going?,’ ” Goetz said. “How do you explain that to the kids?”

Not easily, not when the sun shines bright, the beach stretches wide and the water is an inviting shade of aquamarine.

But the dilemma arises too frequently in Western New York, according to a study of how often water samples from beaches exceeded daily maximum bacteria standards.

Four area beaches finished among the worst 11 in the state last year, according to the report prepared by the National Resources Defense Council.

Most of the problem can be traced to contaminants that enter the water through storm and sewer drains, said Brian Smith of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, which released the report locally.

“Storm water can carry contamination, like pesticides and waste from wildlife, that can run off from things like parking lots into our water bodies,” he said.

According to the study, samples from Chautauqua County beaches exceeded standards 23 percent of the time, the highest percentage in the state. Erie County had the third highest rate — 21 percent — followed by Niagara in fourth place with 18 percent.

Citing federal Environmental Protection Agency data covering 365 beaches in the state, the report said beaches exceeded pollution standards 11 percent of the time last year, compared with 9 percent in 2006.

Statewide, Wright Park West Beach in Dunkirk recorded the second highest proportion of samples — 38 percent — exceeding the standard.

This year, that beach has been closed only twice, said Mark Stow, the county’s director of environmental health science.

“This has been a good year for that beach,” he said.

Samples from a beach in Suffolk County on Long Island exceeded the standard 44 percent of the time, while samples from Wright Park East Beach exceeded 27 percent of the time.

Samples at the Hamburg Beach and Woodlawn Beach State Park were above standard 31 percent of the time, while samples from Lake Erie State Park in Portland, near Brocton, exceeded the standard 27 percent of the time.

High bacteria counts closed the beach Tuesday in Darien Lake State Park, in addition to Woodlawn.

This year, the Woodlawn beach was closed to swimmers 48 percent of the time, compared with 41 percent last year, according to Angela Berti of the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

“We tend to be more concerned with public safety, [so] we tend to close a lot,” Berti said. “It’s frustrating for staff — they hate having to tell people they can’t swim — and obviously, it’s frustrating to the patrons.”

The beach in Darien Lake State Park has been closed 28 percent of the time since it opened Memorial Day, said Berti, who did not have numbers for the beach last year.

“They’re still trying to get to the bottom of the contamination there,” she said, adding that initial reports citing Canada geese droppings may have been premature.

Tests so far have ruled out humans, birds, cows and horses as the source, Berti said. Testing for other animals, such as dogs, is continuing.

Storm water accounts for 70 percent of the contaminants that close beaches in the state, according to the study. Smith said people can do two things to help ease that problem.

The first is to use rain barrels to collect water from downspouts on houses, then use the water to irrigate lawns and landscaping. Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper is offering barrels for sale.

The other involves adding a rain garden, with vegetation designed to absorb more storm water and stop it from going down to the drain.

The long-term solution involves lots of pipe, Smith said. Much of the area’s sewer and storm water handling infrastructure is at least 100 years old and badly in need of replacement.

In March, the state Department of Environmental Conservation estimated the statewide cost of such an overhaul at $32.6 billion over 20 years.

jbonfatti@buffnews.com

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