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Swimming against the tide of our past at Gallagher Beach

Doug Curtis still remembers the shards of glass. He would set out for a windsurfing jag along the Outer Harbor and pick his way through the debris to get to the water. That was decades ago, back when Gallagher Beach was little more than a dirty strip of land between Fuhrmann Boulevard and the shore.

“We’d pick up a 5-gallon bucket of glass every time we’d go,” Curtis recalled last week.

In the years since, the Hamburg sports shop owner has watched the evolution of that crusty Buffalo shoreline from industrial afterthought to emerging state park. First, with the push of then-Assemblyman Brian Higgins, came trucks to haul debris. Then came the gravel beach, a pier, a personal watercraft launch.

Last summer, Curtis was more likely to have to scour the parking lot at Gallagher Beach for a spot than worry about broken glass along the water.

Now part of the new Buffalo Harbor State Park, the waterfront strip is more popular than ever, drawing crowds to soak up the sun, bike along the waterfront path and bounce on a new playground nearby.

But despite all the progress on land, the legacy of treating our fresh water like a sewage dump is still catching up to us. While windsurfing and kayaking are still OK, there will be no swimming at Gallagher Beach, officials at the Office of State Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation have decided.

The problem? Too much bacteria. E. coli is literally a party pooper at a beach that state officials estimate would cost $10 million to $12 million to prepare for swimming and an additional $1 million a year to maintain sand.

Environmental engineers spent the summer of 2014 gathering daily water samples after an Investigative Post report raised questions about the safety of the water. Those samples determined that E. coli levels were too high to safely allow swimming on 19 percent of the days. Another bacteria, Enterococci, exceeded safe levels 45 percent of the time. A previous study of sediments in the area also found troublesome levels of pesticides, aluminum and iron.

In short, it’s not cost-effective to fix up a beach that will still have a significant “eww” factor in the water.

The news came as little surprise to Curtis, who was one of the pioneers of what is now a vibrant windsurfing community on the Outer Harbor – land that has literally been shaped by the industry that once dominated its shores.

“It’s the perfect windsurfing spot. It’s the perfect kayaking spot. But it’s not the perfect swimming spot,” Curtis said.

Higgins, who has been a champion of turning the land into a swimming beach, isn’t giving up. He said last week that he plans to press for federal funds to identify the source of the environmental concerns and address them.

Reclaiming the Outer Harbor for recreation may be one of Buffalo’s latest points of pride, but we haven’t yet escaped the realities left by a century of acting as if Lake Erie and the surrounding rivers were disposable goods.

Cleaning up the water isn’t cheap or easy, as we saw with work to get a long-term plan in place to address sewer overflows in the Buffalo River. A swimming beach at Gallagher might not make financial sense for a state agency that has struggled in the past to maintain parks.

But this is the legacy we’re stuck with. It shouldn’t wash out our future.