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It's been a good summer to be at the beach -- but not in the water

It’s been a good summer to be at the beach in Western New York.

On the sand.

But not so good in the water at the beaches’ edge.

A cooling dip in Lake Erie often was off-limits again during summer 2015 because of high levels of bacteria in the water.

Woodlawn State Park Beach led the region’s list of beach closings. It was closed 43 times between Memorial Day and Sunday.

But this year, Woodlawn had lots of company. All along Western New York’s Lake Erie shoreline, on public beaches from Hamburg to Dunkirk, high levels of E. coli bacteria kept swimmers out of the water and on their beach towels.

“It’s a shame there are days when you can’t swim,” said Luke Silliman of Williamsville, who visited Woodlawn with his family last week. “This is why you live here: to be able to come to the beach and come to the lake.”

Frustrating as the beach closings can be for water-lovers, the beaches might be as safe as they’ve ever been for the swimming public.

That’s because a new predictive forecast model developed through the U.S. Geological Survey – and in place for the first time this year across Erie and Chautauqua counties – seems to be more successful at pinpointing when beach waters are hazardous and when the beaches should be open – or closed – for swimming, preliminary data shows.

“It did pretty well,” said Dolores Funke, Erie County’s director of environmental health. “I’m pretty happy with it for a start-up year.”

Data for 2015 is still being collected through Labor Day and will be crunched by area health officials and federal workers over the fall months. But an early pilot project last year at Woodlawn Beach State Park suggests the new Nowcast model is more than twice as effective at forecasting when a beach should be closed because of bad water conditions.

Woodlawn is notorious for beach closings because of its downstream proximity to a county wastewater treatment facility and stormwater overflow from nearby Rush Creek, as well as being subject to peculiar wind and wave action at the eastern end of Lake Erie.

“It’s a tough area to have a beach,” said Brett Hayhurst, a water quality specialist at the USGS New York Water Science Center in Ithaca.

Last July, high bacteria levels at the beach are suspected to have led to the death of 43-year-old Tom Kacalski, a popular soccer coach from Lackawanna. Kacalski apparently picked up an infection at Woodlawn Beach after cutting his finger. He died a few days later.

That Woodlawn is the closest swimming beach to Buffalo makes it particularly frustrating for beachgoers whose efforts at cooling off are thwarted nearly half the time.

“That’s why we don’t come,” said Gary McDonald of Williamsville.

The 87-degree heat lured the day-trader down to Woodlawn on Thursday, though, after Dillon dialed up the beach status using his iPhone and found he had caught one of Woodlawn’s 54 “good days” for swimming this summer.

“They love the beach; they love the water,” McDonald said of his sons, Dillon, 11, and Brandon, 14. “I’m nervous about it, being so close to the sewage plant. I say, ‘Don’t be inhaling the water.’ ”

The number of beach closings came in at just above a typical year for Woodlawn, which closed 41 days last year and 38 times in 2013.

In contrast, employing Nowcast this year resulted in more robust numbers of closings at four other beaches in Erie County this summer, including Bennett, 41 days through Friday; Evans Town Beach, 36 days; Hamburg Bathing Beach, 37 days; and Lake Erie Beach, 39 days.

“It seems to be when it rained, it rained very hard. … It seemed to keep us closed longer,” said Martin C. Denecke, Hamburg’s recreation director, of the past summer. “We deal with whatever they tell us. Public safety comes first.”

Farther down the shoreline, one-quarter of Wright Park’s 24 summertime closings in Dunkirk came in the days following the torrential July 14 downpours that flooded areas of northern Chautauqua County like Brocton.

“That definitely closed beaches for some extra time,” said Jessica Wuerstle, Chautauqua County’s public health sanitarian. “There was a lot of turbid water and debris. There were a lot of floating things in the water.”

Incidentally, Woodlawn managed to stay open on the summer’s warmest days. Only nine times did Woodlawn – and its neighbor, Hamburg beach – close among the 41 days that the temperature reached or exceeded 80 degrees. Beaches in the Town of Evans, meanwhile, closed a dozen or more times on those days, data shows.

At Wright Park and Point Gratiot in Dunkirk, the beaches were only closed eight times on the summer’s warmest days.

Chautauqua County, which formerly based its beach analysis on a single weekly water sample, also used Nowcast for the first time this year.

“The great thing about the model is it was able to use current day data to make a prediction,” Wuerstle said.

The model – which relies on a number of variables including rainfall data, shoreline currents, nearby tributary flow, turbidity, water levels, temperature, wind and wave action, and others – uses site-specific mathematical formulas to project whether the bacterial count in the water column for swimmers will be at or above 235 colony-forming units per 100 milliliters. That’s the accepted exposure threshold for threatening public health.

“We can make a prediction on what the water quality will be that day,” Hayhurst said.

In past years, Erie County health officials have relied on the past day’s water sampling results to determine whether to close the beach. Because it can take up to 19 hours to brew up a colony of bacteria during testing, the data was often too old for officials to make accurate predictions on whether to close or open a beach. And, if a storm or other event occurred in the intervening time, it added to the unpredictability. There were simply too many false positives or false negatives, Hayhurst explained.

That prompted public health officials in recent years to employ a hard-line policy where one-half inch of rainfall over a 24-hour period led to an immediate beach closing because of the anticipated bacterial load from stormwater runoff or potential sewage overflows.

Funke said the county continues to adhere to the one-half inch guideline if the computer model isn’t able to be run on any given day but acknowledged that the Nowcast model “appears … more accurate.”

“Nothing is ever 100 percent in predicting environmental conditions,” Funke said. “This seems to be better than anything we’ve had in the past.”

The 2014 analysis from Woodlawn supports both of those points.

Woodlawn was actually open for swimming on six days when it shouldn’t have been between July 14, 2014, and Labor Day 2014 because of high levels of bacteria in the water that weren’t accurately predicted by the Nowcast model. On the other hand, using the past day’s water sampling as a guide for closing Woodlawn beach in 2014 led to the beach’s staying open for 19 days when it should have otherwise been closed because of high bacteria counts in the water.

Ultimately, Hayhurst said, it’s not about how many days the beach is open or closed, but getting the days when it needs to be open or closed right.

“We’re making sure they’re actually closing on bad days and staying open on good ones,” Hayhurst said. “The ultimate goal is the health of the public.”

Though many admit hazardous bacteria in the water is disconcerting, summer’s heat continues chasing people to the shore.

“We were just so hot, we had to get somewhere,” said Lisa Ellis of South Buffalo, floating in Woodlawn’s water this week.

Just a few summers ago, Ellis was ordered out of the water along same stretch of beach.

“They said, ‘Get out right now. It’s too dirty,’ ” Ellis said. “That scared the pants off of me.”

email: tpignataro@buffnews.com

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