Mystery lurks in Lake Erie

E.coli pollution has closed beaches the past two summers; experts can't determine where it comes from or how to stop it

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Robin Rombach, Post-Gazette
Swimmers enjoy one of the open beaches at Presque Isle State Park in Erie.
By Don Hopey, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

ERIE -- There's a mystery on Presque Isle, where the beaches beckon, the lake laps gently and the horizon flattens into a deceptively placid blue line.

After more than a decade of improving water quality along this spit of sand that gracefully arcs into Lake Erie from Pennsylvania's northwest corner, potentially unhealthy water conditions caused officials to close one or more of the popular beaches for 27 days last year and 17 days this year.

Even though many fun-in-the-sun days at Presque Isle State Park have been jeopardized for two summers, no one from a host of local, county and state agencies and universities has been able to figure out where the pollution is coming from or how to stop it.

"It shows we're doing our job by closing the beaches and trying to protect the public, but we don't enjoy it," said David Rutkowski, assistant manager of Presque Isle State Park. "We're trying to find out what's causing it. We'd like to pinpoint where it's coming from but, right now, we just don't know."

The 27 days of beach closings last year caught park officials by surprise because there had been only two in 2004 and none in 2003 or 2002. The only two years with more beach closings than 2005-06 was 1992-93, when there were 49.

Pollution-related closings and health advisories at ocean, bay and other Great Lakes beaches also increased nationwide last year, up 5 percent to more than 20,000 days, a rise attributed to heavier-than-normal rainfall and development of coastal areas.

"Last year, we were really bummed out," Mr. Rutkowski said. "We just thought it was one of those years, maybe a little more rainy. Beach 1 West Extension was involved in almost all 27 days of those closings, an indication the pollution was being carried with the prevailing lake currents from the west. But this year, it's more widespread. We're seeing closings along all seven miles of the park's beaches."

That lack of a strong pattern has confounded investigators. Unlike last year, when nine high E.coli test readings resulted in beach closings for multiple days, high bacteria counts were measured on 17 days this year and seemed to go up and down in a day, resulting in beaches being closed one day and open the next.

Also unlike last year, when most of the beach closings occurred in July and August, the first was ordered early in the season this year when water temperatures were still below the 72-degree temperature thought to be a trigger point for the bacteria. That closing occurred June 6, when park officials shut down Beach 6 and Beach 8 after regular weekly water tests showed elevated levels of E.coli, a bacteria found in the digestive tracts of humans and other warm-blooded animals.

There are hundreds of strains of E.coli, and most are beneficial or harmless, but their presence in a water sample at elevated levels can indicate the presence of animal or human waste that could contain other pathogens, viruses or diseases. The most common health problems caused by elevated levels of pathogens in recreational waters are respiratory illness; ear, nose and throat infections; and headaches. Less common are diarrhea, vomiting, fever and hepatitis.

Officials say there are many suspected sources of the problem pollutants but few leads. High levels of E.coli could be caused by storm water overflows after rain; stirred up beach sand or lake-bottom sediments during times of high wind or waves; sewer pipe breaks or spills; leaky septic systems; farm and street runoff; discharge of untreated sewage from "wildcat" sewers; waste from pets, birds and animals that visit the lake shore; or the dumping of boat sewage.

"We're still trying to determine if the E.coli we're finding is human or animal based," Mr. Rutkowski said. "The normal lake currents bring things from the west, but Mill Creek Township, which is to the west, is reporting no problems with its sewage plants. So that points to illegal sewer outflows. Or it could be caused by geese or gulls or just bad luck.

"There's a whole lot of 'could bes,' and it could be a little bit of everything."

A task force of county and state agencies was put together this summer and is working with a consortium of 31 universities to gather information about the pollution problem. Erie County hired two people this summer to do nothing but test water flowing into the lake.

"Everyone has a best guess, but what we don't have is all the answers," said John Olden, who heads the state Department of Environmental Protection's regional watershed-management program.

He said the DEP was conducting a complete biological assessment of the Walnut Creek watershed, in part to determine whether it is one of the sources of the bacteria.

"Walnut Creek is the largest tributary west of Presque Isle, so we're putting a number of people physically in the stream to look for threats and identify potential sources of the problem," Mr. Olden said. "We'll finish our report later this year and roll it out to the public in the spring. Right now, we haven't ruled out any source, but we haven't found a smoking gun, either."

Because pollution has never closed all of the Presque Isle beaches at the same time, visitors to the state's most popular park have been able to find a place to wade and swim, a fact park and tourism officials are quick to note. But there are some indications that the troubled waters have not gone unnoticed.

According to the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, attendance is down this year by about 10 percent, or 240,000 people, through the end of July, from 2,391,191 last year to 2,151,883 this year.

"It's less, and we really don't know why, but the beach closings certainly don't do any good," Mr. Rutkowski said. "We've heard anecdotal evidence of people canceling trips or making fewer of them this year."

John Oliver, president of the Erie County Convention and Visitors Bureau, said a recent poll of the region's three largest hotel chains found that the beach closings had had no impact on their business and that there had been no indication that the number of out-of-town visitors had diminished this year. He said the decline in park attendance was attributable to more rainy days and fewer local users who might hear about the high bacteria levels in the Erie-area media.

"We would love to see no beach closings," Mr. Oliver said. "But having several closed doesn't preclude most people from coming up, because they know there's seven miles of beaches on Presque Isle and we've never had them all closed at one time."

Lifeguard dearth a problem

For Labor Day weekend, state officials already know that four or five of Presque Isle State Park's 11 beaches will be closed, but not because of an influx of bacteria.

Rather, the problem will be an outflow of lifeguards going back to college.

David Rutkowski, assistant park manager, said the most popular beaches on Presque Isle, numbers 6, 8, 10 and 11, definitely will be open for the season-ending weekend, plus a couple more. Of course, that's bacteria levels permitting.

He said the park expected to have between 25 and 30 lifeguards available to staff guard chairs over that weekend. The normal summer staffing level for the park is 60 guards, and at least 45 are needed to keep all the beaches open.

"The first beach we'll close for sure will be Beach 1 West Extension, because it's been a trouble spot for high bacteria counts," he said. "After that, we'll have to see, but I expect most will be open."

For updated information on which beaches are open or closed, call Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Lifeguard headquarters at 814-833-0526, or visit the Earth 911 Web site.

Map and Chart

Beach closures

Don Hopey can be reached at or 412-263-1983.


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