Lake effect

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ERIE, Pa. -- At the park office on Presque Isle, they call visitors from Pittsburgh mupeers.

Rich Forsgren, Erie Times-News via AP
Come on in, the water's fine: North Pier lighthouse, Presque Isle State Park
Click photo for larger image.

"They come into the office and say 'I'm mupeer from Pittsburgh. What's there to do?' " said David Rutkowski, the assistant park manager.

They're up here a lot. The place is swarming with bicyclists, anglers, walkers, sunbathers and, on the three beaches still open on this day, actual swimmers.

Not so on the Mill Road beach. Kevin Polaski is strolling barefoot at the water's edge but, one false move and L.J. Kiehlmier, a 17-year-old lifeguard, will call him to shore with the advice that the water has forbidden levels of E.Coli bacteria.

"A lot of times they kind of freak out," Kielmier said.

E.Coli has received some very bad publicity because one strain, E.Coli O157:H7, occasionally fells a diner who has eaten undercooked hamburger, badly cleaned steak or a literal bad egg. The stuff in Lake Erie is the same kind that swims around inside the intestines of warm-blooded creatures, humans included, few of whom especially want to return the favor by swimming around in it.

"I'd swim in it," Kielmier said. "The only way it'll hurt you is if you swallow it."

So, after days of heavy rain, soup-warm water and eastward currents combined to drive the count from the permissible 235 parts per million to 600, all but three of Presque Isle's beaches closed for three days until the bacteria dissipated.

By Thursday, everyone was back in the water and Lake Erie, for nearly a century the battered spouse among the Great Lakes, continued what turns out to be an astonishing recovery from far worse than the occasional washoff of animal-born bacteria.

At least now, most of the pollutants are biological.

That wasn't always so. When Rutkowski was growing up, Erie's manufacturing industries used the city's bay as a dump, and buildings along the shoreline didn't always hook up to a sewer, unless the lake qualified as such.

"You'd come down and the water would be purple," Rutkowski said. Purple was just one of the colors that decorated what was once a horrible pond of goo. "The water would have oil and dead fish floating on it. It was just awful."

In the 1950s and '60s, one of the major expenditures, according to old park records, was for control of flies that swarmed, bred and bit beachgoers bloody.

As recently as 1969, observers were suggesting that Lake Erie was irrecoverable, a testimony to mankind's capacity to harness nature, wrestle it to the ground and stab it to death.

The credit, in part, goes to the same environmental laws that many complain -- not without some foundation -- have driven away old manufacturing plants. Hammermill, the paper maker that hugged the shoreline and mugged the lake, is silent. Manufacturing has left the lake front. Tourism is coming in.

The trade has been painful, but if the doubling of visitors to the park, and the waiting list for a spot at the nearby marina are any hints, the new industry is gathering strength.

The lake, too, is gathering strength. Nobody could have guessed that the constant churning of water against sand could filter out so much gunk. Time, too, played its part.

"All of the water eventually goes over Niagara Falls. It's like having your sink overflowing with the water running," Rutkowski said.

And then came the zebra mussel. First classified as the ultimate nuisance, a shellfish too small to eat and so numerous it clogged intakes, latched onto boats, basically turned into the kudzu of the Great Lakes, the creature also did something else: It filtered the water clean.

The downside was, strangely enough, that they filtered the water clean.

"It lets more sunlight go deep into the lake, so you get more seaweed and algae," said Doug Range, of the Erie County Health Department.

So, as Polaski stood shoeless on the closed beach, the strange smell of rot could be detected.

"Now we get seaweed washing up," Rutkowski said. People smell that and they think they're smelling something else. In fact, it's the dank smell of a strange success.

Sometimes, things just work out. That's why I'm mupeer.

Dennis Roddy is a Post-Gazette columnist,, 412-263-1965.


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