Maumee Bay park joins water-quality forecasts

System offers safe-swimming prediction

The public has been left hanging, wondering whether swimming advisory signs are staying up too long or coming down too soon.
The public has been left hanging, wondering whether swimming advisory signs are staying up too long or coming down too soon.

First, a new and important Internet link to file away for anyone planning to swim at Maumee Bay State Park:

Now, the story behind it.

Maumee Bay State Park has long been promoted by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources as the crown jewel of northwest Ohio’s 11 state parks. But with such a nagging bacteria problem, it hasn’t always fulfilled its gemlike potential.

And not for a lack of trying.

State employees have popped off noise guns trying to scare away gulls before they defecate.

Large sums of money have been spent cleaning out and repairing septic tanks.

High-pitched noises, inaudible to humans, have been broadcast over loudspeakers in hopes of scaring off birds.

Area sewage releases have been closely analyzed, as has runoff from area farms and businesses.

Plans have been made to build a wetland to help filter contaminants.

Teams of local, state, and federal researchers have been trying to backtrack pollutants with DNA-like precision.

The park’s Lake Erie beach has been featured in numerous media events and scientific conferences probing Great Lakes biological health.

Still, despite those and other efforts, the public has been left hanging, wondering whether the now-familiar swimming advisory signs at the park are staying up too long or coming down too soon.

That’s because advisories to date have always been reactive, instead of proactive.

Decisions to post or remove the signs have been based on water samples usually drawn a day or two before.

The samples take at least 18 hours to process. The frequency varies among other parks, but samples are drawn from Maumee Bay State Park each Monday through Thursday between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

State and county health officials have long acknowledged that the park’s lake and inland pond conditions change hourly. A Blade investigation last summer reaffirmed that levels of bacteria and other pollutants can even vary within the water column and within feet in one direction or another.

Enter Ohio Nowcast, a forecasting system operated by the U.S. Geological Survey in conjunction with several partner institutions, including the University of Toledo. Supporters include park districts, state health and environmental agencies, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Ohio Lake Erie Office, some municipalities, and others.

Ohio Nowcast is the closest thing the state has had to providing real-time information about beach health for sunbathers and would-be swimmers. It predicts whether bacteria in the water are likely to exceed the E. coli safe-swimming threshold of 235 colonies per 100 milliliters.

Now that it has been in use for a few years at Cleveland’s Edgewater Beach and the Huntington Reservation in Bay Village, Ohio, it is to be deployed at Maumee Bay State Park starting May 31.

Think weather forecast, but for bacteria.

By 9:30 a.m. daily people should be able to go to the Web site, click on the banner for any of those three beaches, and get a pretty good idea whether experts believe there will be excessive and potentially dangerous bacteria for any of those three beaches that day.

The forecasts were accurate 80.2 percent and 85.9 percent of the time last year at Edgewater and Huntington Reservation, respectively, according to records presented Thursday night to 50 people who attended a briefing about the program at the University of Toledo’s Lake Erie Center in Oregon.

Amie Brady, a U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist, explained how the forecasts are derived from a combination of data such as water turbidity, wave height, rainfall, wind strength and other weather conditions, and bacteria counts from other recent samples. A computer program weighs each factor in combination with each other and determines the probability of bacteria exposure.

“The more data you have, the better your modeling is going to be,” Ms. Brady said.

UT researcher Daryl Dwyer said a successful program “will be the impetus for its adoption at other beaches.”

Ohio’s 312-mile Lake Erie shoreline has 164 public access locations and 64 monitored bathing beaches, said Corey Schwab, Ohio Department of Health beach sanitarian.

Mr. Schwab said his mission is to improve communication about the state’s beach-water quality through nontraditional platforms such as Facebook, iPhone applications, and e-mails, as well as school programs and a greater Internet presence.

Ohio was third from the bottom in days for excessive bacteria counts in an annual report published last year by the Natural Resources Defense Council, after having the worst standing in the group’s 2007 report and second-worst in the 2008 and 2009 reports, he said.

All are based on the previous year’s data.

Ohio Nowcast has been used for Edgewater Beach and Huntington Reservation since 2008 and 2006, respectively.

It also includes data for a portion of the Cuyahoga River that flows through the Cuyahoga Valley National Park near Brecksville.

Contact Tom Henry at: or 419-724-6079.