July 30, 2008

Water Quality at Pennsylvania’s Presque Isle State Park Presents a Mixed Bag

By Robb Frederick, Erie Times-News, Pa.

Jul. 30--First, the good news: The water quality at Presque Isle State Park improved in 2007, according to a study released Tuesday by the Natural Resource Defense Council. The park staff issued swimming advisories six times in 2007 -- down 85 percent from 2006.

And now, the bad: Fifteen percent of the beach-water samples taken from the Great Lakes exceeded the nation's health standards. That was twice the national average.

"The glass is half-full," said David Masur, the director of PennEnvironment, a Philadelphia-based environmental advocacy group. "But it's also half-empty. It all depends on how you want to look at it."

Water pollution in Pennsylvania is primarily a storm-water problem. That's harder to treat than any single industrial source, which can be shuttered.

When it rains, E. coli and other bacteria wash into Lake Erie. The water off certain beaches -- among them Beach 1, Barracks Beach and Freeport Beach in North East -- becomes risky for swimmers.

The water off Presque Isle is tested twice a week. Additional data is transmitted from a $16,000 buoy anchored off Beach 2.

"There has been some pretty aggressive action taken at the local, regional and state levels to really try and tackle these E. coli outbreaks and to figure out what the source is," Masur said. "But we can't all pat ourselves on the back. We can't go home and stop being vigilant."

The economics won't allow it. Presque Isle draws about 4 million visitors every year. The beaches form the core of the region's $700 million tourism industry.

So what if the weather made the dent in the E. coli totals? What if all that monitoring simply found that less rain made for fewer problems in 2007?

There was a dip in precipitation, according to the National Weather Service. Erie had 44.31 inches in 2006, and 42.18 inches in 2007.

"That could be the factor," said Nancy Stoner, the director of the clean water project at the Natural Resource Defense Council, an environmental nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. "All of this bacteria is carried by storm-water and sewage overflows. So nationwide, that's the biggest factor. That's your answer."


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