Contaminated waters often keep our local beaches closed when
it's hot and everybody wants to swim.
Every summer after a heavy rain, high bacteria levels force the
closure of many beaches, including Woodlawn Beach in Hamburg.
Assemblyman Sean Ryan said, "Because it's a cove in a bay, the
water doesn't move in and out as much."
The Southtowns Sewage Treatment plant is right next to the
beach, taking in most of the sewage from the southtowns, treating
it with chlorine and releasing it back into Lake Erie.
Deputy Commissioner of Erie County Sewage Management Joseph
Fiegl said, "We disinfect the wastewater coming out of the facility
around the clock. It's analyzed every three minutes, the chlorine
being injected into the water."
The treated water is pumped out into the lake through a half
mile underwater pipe right in front of the beach, but this is less
than half of what leads to high bacteria levels, according to UB
geology student Chris Wood.
"They have a very large storage capacity, so there have only
been three times since 2003 when sewage was literally pumped out of
untreated," Wood explained.
Wood and other UB students have studied the issue of high
bacteria levels for months and determined a much larger source of
the bacteria may be coming from the north end of the beach, where
Rush Creek empties into the lake.
"This brings all sorts of bacteria and contaminants from miles
and miles upstream and it puts it right into this swimming beach,"
Assemblyman Ryan said.
And unlike what comes out of the treatment plant, this creek
water is untreated. It includes the fertilizer runoff from farms
and gardens, backyard dog feces, and after a heavy rain, sometimes
sewage mixes into the drainage pipes in Blasdell and Hamburg.
The DEC permits pumping stations, like one in Blasdell, and when
there's a heavy rain, to drop the overflow of that mixture right
back into Rush Creek.
Deputy Commissioner Fiegl explained, "We actually have a plan in
place to eliminate those overflows It's actually called 'Rush Creek
Erie County has set aside $8 million and is close to getting $5
million more from the state to eliminate several older pumping
stations and send more water directly to the Southtowns Treatment
facility for proper disposal. But that project could take years to
The UB students studying the issue are floating some quicker
fixes, like a solar-powered water circulation machine, which costs
about $50,000. It's been used with success in a lake in North
Dakota to stir up the bacteria at the lake-bottom so that the sun's
rays can kill it instantly.
Geology student Jennifer O'Neil explained, "It's actually
bringing up E. coli, which is then killed by UV radiation."
The sun's rays are free and could also kill the bacteria that
lies dormant in the sand at Woodlawn if it was raked down at least
a foot and turned over. O'Neil proposes raking it in sections and
designating the overturned sections as family-safe zones.
"The contamination risk for children or anyone who's going be
playing in the sand is then decreased," she said.
Assemblyman Ryan added, "We don't have to build a new sewer
system to stop our pollution problem. There are other ways around
A new law went into effect just a few days ago that changes the
requirements regarding warning the public about pollution. Now
publicly-owned treatment plants and sewer systems need to notify
the DEC and Department of Health within two hours for all
discharges of untreated or partially treated sewage. The DEC will
then make those warnings public on their website.