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Pollution plaguing Gallagher Beach is a problem that must be corrected

Identifying a problem isn’t the same as solving it. And, in the case of pollution in the water at Gallagher Beach, certainly isn’t sufficient. For Buffalo’s comeback to be complete, it has to be able to take best advantage of its No. 1 asset, which is its place at the eastern end of Lake Erie. Plainly, that includes swimming and sunbathing.

The State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation this week put swimming off limits at Gallagher Beach. Two years of testing documented pollutants, including E. coli, that would require the beach to be closed about 40 percent of the time. At the same time, it found that the beach erosion caused by lake currents made creating and maintaining a beach for sunbathing too costly.

Both may be fair conclusions for today but they are also insufficient to Buffalo’s needs. All that has happened is that the state has identified issues that need to be addressed, and with Buffalo newly ascendant and the nation committed to cleaning the Great Lakes and its tributaries, this is the time to act.

Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, a longtime proponent of opening Gallagher Beach to swimmers, understands the issue.

Environmental problems can be addressed, he said, and engineering solutions exist to replenish beaches. And the federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which has helped clean the Buffalo River and Lake Erie, could help address the pollution issues. And, he observed, this is the time.

“The governor is helping Buffalo realize its full potential as a great waterfront city again, and I don’t want to go backwards, I want to go forward,” Higgins said. “If there is an environmental problem, there has to be a source, and once we identify that source we should identify a remedial action plan.”

Yes. Of course, yes.

The beach is part of Buffalo Harbor State Park on the Outer Harbor, between the former Small Boat Harbor and the South End Marina site.

The state report, produced with the help of the state Department of Health and the state Department of Environmental Conservation, did authorize canoeing, kayaking and wind surfing, reasoning that they require less water contact than swimming. And plans to increase boating recreation at Gallagher Beach are already under consideration.

That’s a start, but it’s not enough. Swimming aside, we have a national obligation to restore the world’s most important inland sea, protecting it from the pollutants that we casually dump into it, sometimes unaware of the consequences but sometimes with reckless disregard for them.

Fortunately for Buffalo and all Great Lakes communities, the federal program is making progress on that requirement.

Now that the state has identified the problems that, for the moment, prevent swimming or beach-going, it is time for our federal and state delegations, along with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, to come up with plans for surmounting those problems and continuing the good work of returning to Buffalo its precious waterfront.