As pleasant as the weather has been lately, it'll be about six weeks before people get out the suntan lotion, head to Maumee Bay State Park, and feel the sand between their toes.
The arrival of Memorial Day weekend brings images of kids splashing in water or making mud pies. But it also signals the beginning of another rite: summer's annual bacteria watch.
Maumee Bay State Park is one of a number of public and private facilities nationwide where otherwise tourist-friendly beaches have been fouled by unexplained spikes of bacteria from time to time.
Theories abound. But the problem continues to gain national attention.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's headquarters in Washington recently announced it is making $10 million available for 35 states and U.S. territories to help sunbathers avoid unnecessary bacteria at coastal beaches, including those in the Great Lakes region. The money will be used by state health departments to monitor water quality and notify the public of problems that arise.
At first glance, $10 million sounds impressive. Divide it 35 ways and it comes to $285,714 - hardly enough for cleanups. It's strictly for continued testing.
“Any money is welcome, but it's very small in regard to the problem,” Amy Simpson of the Ohio Public Interest Research Group said. “It's a step in the right direction, but a very small step.”
Molly Flanagan of the Ohio Environmental Council said she is pleased money has been earmarked for monitoring. But she urged officials to do more than look for the menace and post swimming advisories as they become necessary. “We need to identify the causes,” she said.
It is not immediately clear how much the program will directly benefit the Lake Erie waters of Maumee Bay State Park, plagued by intermittent spikes of bacteria for years. The park's inland pond, barely a stone's throw from the lake, has consistently had lower bacteria counts and fewer problems.
Numbers at all beaches fluctuate, largely because of changing weather patterns.
By and large, the best advice is to avoid all lake and pond water for hours after strong winds and thunderstorms - preferably even a day or two, depending on the size of the storm. The rain and wind stirs up lake sediment, where strains of E. coli bacteria that make people sick appear to be a lot hardier than once believed, officials have said.
The EPA has for years sponsored conferences in various regions, including the Great Lakes, to help officials discuss common beach-bacteria problems.
Kurt Erichsen, vice president of environmental planning for the Toledo Metropolitan Council of Governments, said any EPA assistance is welcomed, even if it's just drawing more attention to the magnitude of the problem on a regional or national level. But he's unsure how much direct involvement the federal agency will have at Maumee Bay State Park, given that it's a state-run facility.
Much of the research done there has come from a hodgepodge of state and local funding sources, such as the cities of Toledo and Oregon, council of governments, University of Toledo, Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Ohio Water Development Authority, and others. One federal agency that has been involved along the way is the U.S. Geological Survey, Mr. Erichsen said.
“You put all the pieces together and you make it work,” he said.
The recent EPA announcement was in regard to a second round of grants that agency is making available to states for enhanced monitoring and communication, Chris Weiss, Ohio Department of Health spokesman, said.
Ohio is eligible for up to $224,227 this year, down slightly from its allocation of about $227,000 last year.
It plans to apply for the full amount by the June 10 deadline. It will divvy up whatever it receives among Lake Erie beaches. Beaches that are inland or along the Ohio River aren't eligible for funding from the coastal program, Mr. Weiss said.
“We're happy it has been made available,” he said.
Other officials agree, knowing how the war in Iraq has put a crimp on federal funding.
Ohio ranks 27th out of 35 states and U.S. territories eligible for funding. Michigan, eligible for $283,360, ranks 15th. Both trail U.S. territories such as Puerto Rico, Northern Mariana, U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, and American Samoa.
The U.S. EPA said its eligibility formula was based largely on climate, beach acreage, usage, and the length of swimming seasons.
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