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Several local beaches have elevated bacteria levels, study shows

Posted at 12:39 PM, Jul 09, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-09 12:39:37-04

CLEVELAND — Hot weather and the option to get out of the house are bringing more people to the shores of Lake Erie. But before you dip a toe into the water, remember to pay attention to beach reports for water quality alerts.

With an estimated 57 million cases of waterborne illness linked to swimming every year, a new report shows you can find that type of bacteria at some spots along Lake Erie.

The Environment America Research and Policy Center reviews water testing data at beaches across the country, including 54 in Ohio and 17 in Cuyahoga County. The numbers included statistics from Villa Angela State Park, Huntington Beach and Euclid Beach over more than 100 days.

Results showed unsafe conditions at least 18% of the time, with the highest rate of contamination at Villa Angela.

“The big issue is what we see after days like today, whether it’s combined sewer overflows, or some storm sewers that discharge into Lake Erie,” said Tom Fink of the Cuyahoga County Board of Health.

To be considered unsafe, bacteria levels had to reach or exceed criteria set by the EPA. Those guidelines are used to decide when beaches should be closed to swimmers.

“There are a number of different bacteria that you can find, but the main one we use as an indicator is E-Coli,” Find said. “Water quality advisories are issued once an E-Coli levels get above 235 CFUs per 100 milliliters of water. That is 235 colony forming units per 100 milliliters of water.”

Huntington Beach is the only public Lake Erie beach that is sampled by the county health board, but they do sample several smaller beaches along Lake Erie and other inland lakes.

Edgewater and Villa Angela are sampled through the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District.

Beach Guard is part of the state’s Bathing Beach Monitoring program. You can find the information on the department of health’s website. Each yellow flag means there is enough bacteria to make people sick.

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Map from the Ohio Department of Health's BeachGuard program, with yellow flags showing beaches where there was enough bacteria detected to potentially cause sickness.

“The main issue would be the gastrointestinal illnesses, people getting the nausea, the vomiting, the diarrhea,” Fink said. “This can really affect people who are ill of health. Whether it be an elderly person whose immune system is already weakened, young children whose immune system isn’t quite developed yet or people who are already ill from another sickness or illness.”

Typically, between 24-48 hours after a significant rainfall is when we start to see the E-Coli levels in the water go down.

To address the issue, the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District is in the middle of a 25-year, federally-mandated program called Project Clean Lake.

The $3 billion plan will create seven massive tunnels under Cleveland that will hold untreated water during a storm which can be pumped out and treated later.

The project started in 2011, and so far, it has reduced about 1.5 billion gallons of overflow going into the environment.