Krull Park offers one of the most popular beaches on Lake Ontario, but in recent years, the beach also has offered one of Niagara County's longest-running mysteries.
Where is the bacteria coming from?
The water quality offshore is tested regularly, and as a result, the beach is frequently closed -- three times in July alone and another last week, with one of the July shutdowns lasting five days.
The tests show that E. coli bacteria levels in the water fluctuate and sometimes become, in the Niagara County Health Department's opinion, too high for safe swimming.
Scientists say the E. coli bacterium comes from, as County Environmental Health Director James J. Devald puts it, "the intestinal tracts of warm-blooded animals."
In other words, sewage.
Yet, the nearest wastewater treatment plant on the lakeshore, the Town of Newfane's, is downwind, about a mile east of the beach.
"The surface water is subject to the wind. The deeper water, the current, is west to east," said County Legislator John Syracuse, R-Newfane.
That's because Lake Ontario, the easternmost lake in the Great Lakes, empties the water from the other four lakes that flows over Niagara Falls into the St. Lawrence River, which leads to the Atlantic Ocean.
Devald said he's not aware of any eddies or backflows that would bring water from the east back to Krull Park Beach.
A two-year study has just gotten under way to try to solve the mystery.
"The state Health Department got the grant, and we're in on it," Devald said. "We've had a student intern here gathering information on pollution sources and land use."
The study also is gathering historical data on the beach's closure, but for now, all that's available are theories on the sources of the bacteria.
> Newfane's control
A fact is that Eighteen Mile Creek empties into the lake about half a mile west of the beach. It's also a fact that the Eighteen Mile Creek corridor is a state Superfund site because of industrial pollution at sites in the City of Lockport, especially the abandoned Flintkote building materials plant on Mill Street.
Devald said the tests at Krull Park are for bacteria, not industrial chemicals.
Aerial photos of Olcott taken two years ago show the creek emitting brown water into the bluer lake waters. A similar view can be seen if one looks for photos of Olcott on such Internet sites as Google Earth.
Devald said the daily water samples are taken at two depths, two feet and four feet. The first closure this year resulted from elevated e. coli bacteria levels in the July 5 deep sample. It lasted one day.
A July 18 test showed high E. coli in both samples. The beach wasn't reopened until July 23. There also was a one-day closure in the ensuing week.
Thursday morning, the Health Department shut the beach for the fourth time in a month. Ronald Gwozdek, public health engineer, said both the deep and shallow water samples taken Wednesday showed elevated levels of e. coli.
Newfane Town Supervisor Timothy R. Horanburg has long had an interest in the Krull Park situation. That intensified this year when the County Legislature approved a transfer to the town of control of the beach and the terraces overlooking it.
The county continues to own and maintain the rest of the park, but Newfane is now in charge of the beach -- except for the decision about whether to allow swimming.
The town committed $26,000 in this year's budget to operate the beach and hire lifeguards. Formerly, it made a financial contribution, but the county hired the lifeguards.
The town hired six lifeguards for the beach and normally uses three per shift. When the water is off-limits, "We cut it down to one or two," Horanburg said.
"It was labor-intensive for the county to manage this little sliver of the Public Works Department," Syracuse said. "The town has a little more flexibility on the utilization of those individuals. The overwhelming majority of people are satisfied with the outcome."
Horanburg wants people to use the 255-foot-long beach even if the water is off-limits for swimming, but the Health Department, which has authority over all bathing beaches, keeps a tight rein on such use. The beach is open daily from noon to 7 p.m. The rest of the time, the gate is padlocked.
"I don't like it, but I do it," Horanburg said. "We have a beach over on the other side [of Olcott]. A lot of people go over there."
The town owns about 200 feet of lake frontage off the end of Jackson Street, west of the creek. Horanburg vows that the water there is always clean for swimming.
He is about to start testing water samples from the town's beach and in the mouth of the creek. The supervisor said he thinks the results will show the problem is coming out of Eighteen Mile Creek.
"Anything that comes out of the harbor goes to the east," he said.
> Lockport's outflow
The City of Lockport's wastewater treatment plant, about 10 miles from the lake, empties 7 million to 9 million gallons of treated sewage into Eighteen Mile Creek every day, according to Paula Sattelberg, city director of utilities.
The city has a long-running problem with what regulators call "combined sewer overflows," or CSOs.
Under state and federal clean water regulations, storm sewers, which handle rain and melted snow, are supposed to use separate pipes from sanitary sewers, which carry the material that runs from sinks and toilets.
But Lockport's ancient sewer system uses many pipes in which both sources of sewage are in the same pipe. "At certain points, there are weirs where the sewage can overflow into the [Erie] canal or the creek," Sattelberg said.
In other words, untreated sewage can get into the creek during periods of heavy flows.
Lockport used to have 31 of those overflow points, but over the years, the city has been reducing that number; Sattelberg said there are now about 11, with only three being frequent spill areas.
"We've been doing CSO monitoring and closing. We've been working on this since 1997. We've spent tons of money," she said.
Two of the active CSOs, off State Road and West Main Street, spill sewage into the canal when they run over. But "the biggie," as Sattelberg put it, is CSO No. 2, located north of the intersection of William and Water streets.
"It's on the creek bank," she said.
But Sattelberg strongly denies that Lockport sewage is responsible for causing beach closures at Krull Park.
"It's not us," she said. "It's our contention that 99 percent of what goes into the sewer reaches the [treatment] plant."
The state Department of Environmental Conservation backs up Sattelberg.
DEC spokeswoman Megan Gollwitzer said in a statement, "At this time, the source of the bacteria that has caused the beach closings at Krull Park is undetermined. There have been no recent CSO discharges that could have caused the latest beach closing. The Niagara County Health Department intends to conduct bacteria monitoring, including DNA analysis, to track down and identify sources within the watershed."
Asked if he thinks Lockport is a possible source, Devald said, "It's a ways away [from the lake], but it's possible."
At any rate, the sewers haven't overflowed in Lockport since May, Sattelberg said.
"The water quality was good until the Fourth of July," Devald noted.
Devald said some think that agricultural runoff from farm fields along the creek might be the source of the bacteria, by leaching spread animal manure from the fields into the water.
But Horanburg derides that claim. For most of the summer, "There has been no rain, no runoff," he said.
The federal government owns two aging piers at Olcott, one on each side of the mouth of the creek. "There's a whole bunch of seagulls and waterfowl on that pier," Devald offered.
"Those piers are really busted up," Syracuse said. He suggested that a project to firm up the underpinnings of the piers might force the creek flow farther out into the deep lake waters and make it less likely that whatever comes from the creek might wash up at Krull Park.
"That might help," Horanburg said, "but the real issue is, we've got to find the source. What if the wind blows from the northeast? It's going to blow [the creek flow] back onto the beach."
> Splash park a hit
Despite the mystery bacteria, this has been a good summer at Krull Park.
The county, using $213,000 in state parks and Niagara River Greenway funds, was able to construct a major new splash park for children without using any local tax dollars.
"The time to actually construct the splash park was only four or five months, but Public Works put more than two years into planning, designing and securing funding for the project," said Christian W. Peck, county public information officer. "It is open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m."
"That splash park is spectacular. That is the nicest thing. It's so friendly," Horanburg said. "It's water-conservative, because [children] have to press a button to make it work. It gets used a ton."
"Aside from modernizing it, getting it out of the 1970s, it's safer for the younger kids," Syracuse said.
He said the drain at the old splash park often was intentionally plugged by older children to make deeper water. "It would drive out the toddlers," Syracuse said.
Now, "there really is a clear demarcation of the age groups," the legislator said.
When older children show up, "We try to steer them over to the lake," he added.
When swimming is allowed, that is.