With summer in full swing, many residents will be looking to public beaches to keep cool.
But what happens when the beaches are closed?
It’s a problem we’ve seen several times over the last couple of years at Oneida Shores in Brewerton, as well as other beaches along Oneida Lake. The park was closed to swimmers late last month by the Onondaga County Department of Health because E. coli bacteria had been found in unacceptable levels during routine sampling.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, E. coli is a bacteria that lives in the intestines of people and animals. Most forms of the bacteria are harmless, but some can cause diarrhea, urinary tract infections, respiratory illness and pneumonia, and other illnesses. The kinds of E. coli that cause gastrointestinal distress are often transmitted through contaminated water or food.
So how does this bacteria end up in Oneida Lake?
“It’s a combination of natural factors,” said Kevin Zimmerman of the Onondaga County Department of Health. “It’s not an exact science. A lot of it is weather and the movement of the water. In Oneida Lake, the water moves from east to west. What happens is weather riles the water, which stirs up more sediment, and we have to wait until it settles out.”
Zimmerman said bird feces can also cause the spike.
“We’ve also had issues with ducks and geese, depending on where you are on the lake,” he said. “In the last couple of years, it’s not as much geese, but three or four years ago, it was a major issue. There were actually goose droppings floating in the water.”
Health officials sample the water at Oneida Lake (and other public beaches) monthly to ensure that it meets quality standards in lab tests. Health officials test more often if they get a complaint or if there severe weather.
“When we get a bad sample, we take a resample to make sure it’s not some other problem, like a mistake at the lab or a contaminated bottle,” Zimmerman said.
If the sample is still bad, public health officials let the beaches know they need to shut down.
According to Zimmerman, the standard is 235 E. coli per 100 milliliters of water.
“Anything under that is considered acceptable by the state,” he said. “We derive our standards from the New York State Sanitary Code, Part 6.”
That section of code, Part 6.2-15, describes the standards under which public beaches must operate when it comes to water quality. Under the code, public health officials are required to sample the water regularly. The beach must be closed if the density of bacteria is higher than those listed below:
1,000 fecal coliform bacteria per 100 ml; or
61 enterococci per 100 ml for freshwater; or
104 enterococci per 100 ml for marine water; or
235 E. coli per 100 ml for freshwater (E. coli is not to be used as an indicator in marine water).
Other public health hazards that would necessitate closing a beach are as follows:
•failure to provide adequate supervision of the beach
•overhead electrical wires within 20 feet horizontally of the beach;
•failure to provide all lifesaving equipment at beach;
•use of unapproved or contaminated water supply sources for potable water use;
•the existence of sewage and waste-water discharges in the bathing area;
•failure to properly delineate swimming area boundaries;
•failure to provide signs indicating swimming is prohibited when the bathing beach is closed or unsupervised; and
•any other condition determined to be a public health hazard by the permit-issuing official.
Water also must be free of toxic chemicals, deposits, growths, oils and greases, and algae and other aquatic vegetation have to be controlled.
So far, Oneida Lake is the only one in Onondaga County to see this problem on a repeated basis.
“At the moment, it’s just Oneida Lake, but other beaches have other problems,” Zimmerman said. “Later in the summer, we get algae growing and that’s become a problem.”
For updates on public beaches, visit onondagacountyparks.com.
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.