Sunday, July 29, 2001

Lake Erie cleaner, but sewage runoff persists

By John Seewer
The Associated Press

        OREGON, Ohio — Despite years of testing and millions of dollars spent to fix septic tanks and sewage systems, it likely will take many more years to win the battle against harmful bacteria levels in Lake Erie.

        During the past decade, water quality along the shoreline has improved and beachgoers this summer are finding only a few signs warning them of high bacteria counts.

        Yet, most researchers say that a solution is far off.

        A group formed six years ago to study the problem along beaches near Toledo blames ditches that pour sewage into the lake and winds that push the waste against the shoreline.

        “We're fairly sure that's what's going on,” said Mike Oricko, chief of environmental health for Lucas County Health Department.

        Questions remain because a combination of factors can add to high bacteria levels, he said.

        They include:

        • Farm pesticide runoff.
        • Bird droppings.
        • Storms stirring up contaminated lake sediment.
        • Wind and water directions along with the water depth.
        • Sewage dumped into rivers by cities and septic tanks that leak waste.

        “This is such a complicated problem. If we get an answer, it seems like we come up with two more questions,” Mr. Oricko said.

        Water tests are conducted every day at some state parks for E. coli and fecal coliform bacteria. The issue has brought together federal, state and local agencies.

        “This isn't just a local problem,” Mr. Oricko said. “This is a problem along a lot of areas along the Great Lakes.”

        State law requires beach operators to post warning signs if bacteria levels exceed federal safety limits. The advisories don't necessarily stop people from going into the water, but they do warn them to swim at their own risk.

        Swimming in water with high bacteria counts can cause diarrhea, nausea, abdominal cramps and other ailments.

        Lake Erie's public beaches are getting cleaner.

        Three years ago, 100 advisories were posted, compared with 262 in 1995.

        The Ohio Department of Health, which tests state park beaches along the lake, posted 13 warnings through mid-July this year, eight at parks in Cuyahoga County.

        Most advisories are posted in July and August when water temperatures increase, making it easier for bacteria to grow.

        Mr. Oricko said bacteria is a natural part of lake water and will always be present.

        “The lakes are alive. Every drop of water has living organisms in it,” Mr. Oricko said. “It's not bathtub water. It's not chlorinated pool water.”

        Water advisories often follow storms and heavy rains that stir up sediments in beach shallow areas, said Steven Binns, who oversees the state health department's water safety program.

        “The best you can do is control and eliminate the man-made sources. The weather is always going to be a problem,” Mr. Binns said.

        This year, there have been no water warnings at Maumee Bay State Park near Toledo. Its beaches have been troublesome in past years and studied in great detail.

        More than 1 million people visit the park each year. In past summers, bacteria levels cause the warning signs to go up as much as 30 times each season — sometimes for several days each time.

        Many septic tanks — once 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 ground water.

        Work will begin this summer on a $7.4 million sewer system just east of Toledo to reduce the amount of waste that flows into ditches and is washed into the lake during heavy rains.

        The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency ordered the cleanup five years ago.

        Since then, the area has continued to grow with lakefront condominiums, new houses, a boat ramp and boardwalk.

        “This really is our Cape Cod,” Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Toledo, said while announcing the sewer project to reduce bacteria levels.

        Lucas County Sanitary Engineer Jim Shaw said the sewer project will undoubtedly stop waste from polluting the lake, but added that it's impossible to say how much the bacteria levels will be reduced.


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