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Source: Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

Lake Ontario beaches ranked among worst in state

BY STEVE ORR
STAFF WRITER

Posted: July 31, 2009
Originally Published: July 30, 2009

Underscoring continuing pollution concerns in western New York waters, an annual nationwide study has ranked local swimming beaches among the most challenged in the state.

Ontario Beach in Charlotte was seventh-worst in the state last year, with 30 percent of water samples failing to meet state bacteria standards.

Pultneyville Mariners Beach in Wayne County, also on Lake Ontario, was third-worst among 350 New York beaches that were tested last year, according to data compiled by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Durand Beach in Rochester, two swimming areas at Hamlin Beach State Park and one other location in Wayne County also were near the top of the list of beaches facing bacteria problems.

In all, eight of the 10 worst beaches were on Lake Ontario or Lake Erie — yet another demonstration that those lakes, like many others in the region, still suffer from storm water runoff, sewer-system discharges and other pollutants. Those sources are blamed for feeding bacteria into the lakes and for loading the water bodies with nutrients that stimulate the growth of beach-fouling algae.

"The Great Lakes are the heart of our region," said Sarah Eckel, a program coordinator in Syracuse for the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, which released the NRDC report Wednesday. "Losing beach days to preventable problems like sewage and polluted run-off jeopardizes public health and our regional economy. We have the tools to fix these problems, and we need to act now."

Overall, 8 percent of Empire State beach samples flunked the bacteria test last year. Nationwide, the NRDC reported that 7 percent of samples failed to meet standards.

In another measure, the New York City-based advocacy group tallied more than 20,000 combined days last year when beaches nationwide were closed or posted with swimming advisories. The group said it was the fourth year in a row in which the number of closure-days surpassed 20,000, and blamed pollution problems that continue to defy solution. The group analyzed federal data for more than 6,300 Atlantic, Pacific and Great Lakes beaches.

More than 1,600 of the closure days occurred in New York state, according to the NRDC report. Durand Beach was closed for 53 days last year and Ontario Beach for 48 days. The Pultneyville beach was closed for 38 days.

Monroe County health officials, who make daily decisions about whether to close Ontario and Durand beaches, say the frequency with which those beaches close is due to pollution concerns – and to the intensity of their oversight program.

Indeed, no other New York beach was sampled more than Ontario Beach last year and only 23 of all beaches nationwide listed in the NRDC report were tested more frequently. The county began its program of intensive sampling at Ontario Beach more than three decades ago in response to serious concerns about pollution and swimmer health.

But testing isn't the sole determinant of the daily decisions about Ontario and Durand, which officially opened to swimming in 2006. Rather, the county looks at rainfall, wind direction, the rate of flow in the Genesee River, the proximity of algae, water clarity and other factors to predict whether the beach will be safe.

Health department spokesman John Ricci said that while the NRDC report warns of the health risks of swimming at some beaches, "that's exactly what we are avoiding by being proactive and thorough about testing and closing the beach when we have to. If we don't think it's healthy for people to be swimming, we close it."

One major determinant is rainfall, which washes all sorts of pollutants, including bacteria, into waterways that flow into Lake Ontario. Heavy rainfalls also cause overflows of stormwater and untreated sewage a few times each year into the Genesee, which empties into the lake just east of Ontario Beach and about two miles west of Durand.

"There's a direct correlation between rain and impact on our beaches," Ricci said. "There are years like this one, with all the rain we're having, that are really a bust of a year."

Through Wednesday, Ontario Beach had been closed 65 percent of the time, and Durand Beach 55 percent, Ricci said.