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Dangerous levels of bacteria and algae call for commitment to cleaner water

Western New York is on the rise, and much of its continuing success is dependent upon a healthy “blue economy” based on the benefits of the region’s many lakes and rivers, large and small.

But that future is jeopardized when waterways are teeming with dangerous algae or bacteria. What should be a normal summer trip to the beach is ruined too many times around here because the water is not safe for swimming.

An eye-opening article by The News’ T.J. Pignataro detailed the problem of high levels of bacteria over the summer. The beach at Woodlawn Beach State Park led the region’s list, with 43 closings between Memorial Day and early September. In an extreme example from last July, high bacteria levels at Woodlawn Beach are suspected to have led to the death of 43-year-old Tom Kacalski, a popular soccer coach from Lackawanna. He apparently picked up an infection through a cut on his finger and died a few days later.

On other beaches from Hamburg to Dunkirk, high levels of E. coli bacteria prevented swimmers from going into the water at various times this summer.

Folks around Findley Lake are well aware of the consequences of contaminated waters. As Pignataro’s Tuesday article detailed, the lake in the southwestern corner of New York has been subject to harmful blue-green algal blooms. This is the same issue, although on a smaller scale, that plagues the western end of Lake Erie most summers.

Those problems become most apparent in late summer as the water warms and the algae feed on nutrients, especially phosphorus, washed into tributaries and lakes. The phosphorus comes from fertilizer applied to farmland, failing septic systems, sewage discharges and storm water runoff.

The algae has also affected Chautauqua Lake, but officials believe that after years of dealing with the sources of phosphorus the lake has been mostly free of algae blooms. Getting there has taken a combination of enforcement, legislation and infrastructure upgrades.

Solving the algae and bacteria problems will not be easy and most certainly will not be cheap. Some work has already been done, but so much remains. The outlay of public dollars will be painful, but we have to say “enough” to the notion of using lakes and streams as sewers.

Lake Erie is a precious resource that we usually take for granted. It is envied by drought-stricken Western states and stands to lure businesses drawn by the seemingly endless supply. Signs warning that the water is too dangerous for swimming don’t help the effort.

Besides, it is the right thing to do, given that humans are responsible for creating this nasty environmental impact. Clean water preserves animal habitat and is a quality-of-life issue for humans who want to swim and fish.

It makes little sense to expend so much money and effort improving public access to the water without also trying to limit the bacteria and chemicals that make the water unsafe for swimming many days each summer. The benefits in sustaining our “blue economy” will extend for generations.