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Towering piles of lake debris line Woodlawn Beach

Piles of debris 20 feet high tower over the pay loaders on the beach. ¶ And there must be at least a dozen piles. ¶ This is Woodlawn Beach, the mile-long sandy beach that is one of the most spectacular stretches of waterfront in Western New York. ¶ But not today. ¶ The winter’s violent snow and windstorms beat up the beach, pushing tons of sand back onto the dunes, and leaving debris up to 6 feet high along the water’s edge. They now are being moved into the big piles to be removed. ¶ The beach formally opens for the season in three weeks on Memorial Day weekend. ¶ “It looks like World War III down here,” exclaimed Kelly Roblee, a member of Local 17, Operating Engineers. ¶ The debris consists of black weeds and leaves, huge trees and tree limbs, some as long as 30 feet, and assorted plastic containers, beer cans, tires and other smaller junk. The most unusual find was a washer. ¶ Hamburg is hoping Roblee and the Local 17 union apprenticeship program will ride to the rescue. The Operating Engineers are bringing big equipment to the beach, and their apprentices

will staff their loader, dump truck and bulldozer to clear the beach. It gives the apprentices training, while helping the community. Hamburg will pay for the fuel.

“When you said you needed help, you weren’t lying,” Roblee told Raymond Pawlowski, the working crew chief for the Town of Hamburg who oversees maintenance of the beach.

“This has been the worst year we’ve had,” Pawlowski said.

Woodlawn’s location at the eastern end of Lake Erie is ready-made to collect sand – and debris. The prevailing winds, combined with the way the lake channels wind up the lake, bring sand and debris to the beach.

“We had a lot of southwesterly flow wind days this year,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Aaron Reynolds. “That’s where all the waves are pushed up onto shore.”

The amount of debris depends on how much comes out of the creeks and rivers west of Woodlawn and flows into the lake, Reynolds said.

Boats wash ashore, and crews will find hundreds of golf balls in the mess every year.

Cleanup started a little late this year because of the weather. Crews had to wait for the ice to move down the Niagara River and the debris on the shore to defrost.

“We got a later start because of the ice on the lake,” Hamburg Highway Superintendent Tom Best said. “It’s going to take longer and there seems to be more debris.”

North of Hamburg, in Niagara Falls, ice build-up is the problem at Terrapin Point and Cave of the Winds, but state parks officials expect both to reopen for the traditional Memorial Day opening.

Shorelines further south also had a little more cleanup to do this spring.

“This is a little worse than normal,” said Evans Parks Crew Chief Patrick Conrad, but he said it was not “exceptionally bad” this year at Lake Erie Beach and Evans Town parks.

Crews started working last week in Evans.

“Mainly it’s debris, trees, limbs and leaves, some garbage, not as much garbage as you would think,” Conrad said, adding his crews have to reroute the sand. “It moves around in the winter.”

Sand also collected in the dunes at Woodlawn over the winter. Pawlowski estimates there are 4 feet to 5 feet of extra sand on the walkway through the dunes near the Beach Bar that will have to be moved to the beach.

The town took over operations at the beach in 2011 after the state had shut the park and others because of a budget crisis. Each year it has added programs and amenities, like a restaurant open for banquets and special events, Beach Bar, play area with bounce houses, volleyball, beach tennis and weddings on the beach.

Hamburg closed the park early this year for the first time since it has been operating the beach.

“There was so much debris down there, it was all covered with mulch and snow and ice,” Pawlowski said. “It was a safety concern.”

Wooden blockades stand at the entrance to the parking lot, keeping cars out, although some people do wander onto the beach. But town officials want to keep people off the beach because of the heavy equipment that will be moving the debris. And until it’s removed, responding to an emergency on the beach will be difficult, Pawlowski said.

In the meantime, crews are focused on cleaning up the beach as soon as possible: The first beach wedding is scheduled May 15.