NRDC: Ohio’s Lake Erie Beaches Worst in Nation for Water Quality

Lake Erie beaches in Ohio are the worst in the nation for water quality, according to the annual report on beach rankings by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The environmental advocacy group?s report, ?Testing the Waters,? placed Ohio at the bottom of a list of 30 states that track water quality in coastal beaches. Last year, the state?s 61 beaches ranked 29 of 30, and the state has not fared well in previous years, either.

The rankings are based on how many times levels of E. coli bacteria were high enough to indicate a threat to the health of swimmers. Contact with E. coli, and the other bugs the bacteria serve as a marker for, can cause gastrointestinal illness, skin, ear, respiratory, eye, neurologic and wound infections.

In 2012, Ohio health officials detected E. coli levels exceeding the acceptable maximum set by the Ohio Department of Health in 21 percent of the samples tested. Wisconsin, ranked 29th on NRDC?s list, had similar levels of E. coli in only 14 percent of its samples. The best beaches, in Delaware, had dangerous levels of bacteria in less than 1 percent of samples.

?If you look over the last five years, Ohio has really shown some stubborn water pollution problems,? said Karen Hobbs, senior policy analyst with NRDC.??It?s almost a perfect storm within the Great Lakes basin?these aging and failing sewer systems, this immense amount of storm water runoff because of all the paved surfaces, exasperated by climate change?all of this has combined to keep our water pollution pretty steady.?

Unhealthy levels of bacteria typically show up in the water after heavy rains due to direct storm water runoff and ?combined sewer overflows.??????? ?

These overflows, common to older cities that built their systems to combine sanitary and storm sewers, divert large amounts of sewage directly into the lake whenever there is a heavy rain. Combined sewers overflow into Euclid Creek about 60 times a year, on average, sewer officials said. Euclid Creek empties into Lake Erie on the northeastern edge of the City of Cleveland.

?When they built the infrastructure a long time ago, they thought this was more efficient and cheaper,? said Mark Citriglia, manager of analytical services for the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District. The Sewer District tests the Euclid, Villa-Angela and Edgewater beaches for bacteria daily during the recreation season. Most other beaches in the area are tested by local health departments.

The Sewer District has started investing in improvement to the combined sewer system as part of a federally-mandated settlement with the Environmental Protection Agency. Over the next 25 years, the Sewer District will invest $3 billion in projects such as the Euclid Creek Tunnel, which will divert millions of gallons of sewage from the lake.

?We?re trying to eliminate those overflows by sending them into an underground tunnel and holding it there, and then pumping it back to the sewage treatment plant,? Citriglia said.

But even when there aren?t heavy rains or combined sewer overflows, Erie beaches often have high bacteria levels, he said.

?A lot has to do with the flow patterns in the lake, with the breakwalls on these beaches,? which stir up bacteria in the sediment.

Lake Erie is also shallow in comparison to the other Great Lakes, NRDC?s Hobbs said, and that makes it more likely that bacteria-laden sediment will be picked up by currents and re-suspended in the water. Shallow water is also warmer and more hospitable to bacteria. ?

Another problem may be the large Canada Geese population on some of the beaches, particularly Villa-Angela, which has been consistently low-rated. The Sewer District is starting molecular testing to identify the origins of the bacteria they find in the water to see if the birds are sometimes to blame.

?If we tackle all of these things, the beaches will come around,? Citriglia said. ?

Whatever the cause, Citriglia and Hobbs of NRDC recommend paying close attention to the beach advisories.

?These advisories indicate that there?s human or animal waste in the water,? Hobbs said. ?No one really wants to swim with poop.?

?If you have any autoimmune conditions that make you susceptible or if you?re very old or very young, stay out of the water, or limit your exposure and don?t dunk your head under,? Citriglia advised.

He also recommended washing hands with soap and water or using hand sanitizer before eating at the beach.

For more information about local beach advisories, visit the Ohio Department of Health?s BeachGuard site or the Ohio Nowcast.

–Information contained in this article was taken form a report by Brie Zeltner of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio. It appeared on July 4 on, the editorial website of The Plain Dealer.?

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