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State officials say more needs to be done to keep beaches open for swimming

Inclement weather and a new predictive model system put in place this year likely led to the higher-than-normal number of no-swim days at area beaches this year, officials said Tuesday during a gathering of municipal, county and state officials.

Figuring out how to keep pollutants out of the water won’t be easy, they said.

Wastewater overflows during rainy weather contribute to the problem, but they’re not the only cause.

During a summer rife with beach closings from high bacterial levels, the culprits include debris, old sewer lines, broken septic systems and even dog owners who don’t clean up after their pets.

“We have to learn more and work together as a group and learn what is causing this,” said Abby Snyder, regional director for the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

Officials at the roundtable discussion – organized by Assemblyman Sean Ryan at Woodlawn State Park – called tracking pollution sources and determining the degree to which they contribute to the problem important first steps in solving the problem.

They called for a cooperative effort by businesses, government agencies, organizations and citizens to clean Western New York’s waterfront.

“Imagine 43 days out of 90, the Thruway wasn’t open,” Ryan said. “No one would tolerate that.

“The public is really shifting the expectations for our waterfront, and they’re surprised it’s not as clean as it should be,” Ryan said.

Area municipal and state parks officials said most beaches around Western New York were closed to swimming almost twice as much this year as previous years.

“What are the sources of the pollutants? That’s a challenge for us,” said Mark Thomas, the western district director of the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. “It’s a very dynamic environment we’re working in and a very challenging one. And, there are no easy solutions.”

In the meantime, when bacterial levels are high, officials agreed that closing beaches is the safest step.

“The state and county health departments are doing the right thing to reduce the risk of serious illness in many cases,” said Eric J. Wiegert of the state Health Department.

Wiegert noted the EPA’s bacteria threshold for closing beaches will become even more stringent in 2017.

“Our only focus is to protect the public health without unduly closing beaches. We try to be as accurate as possible,” said Dolores Funke, Erie County’s director of environmental health.

“These methods are imperfect, but they’re the best we have right now.”

Officials agreed on goals to improve public notification of beach closings, better inform the public of the risks posed by E. coli bacteria and get more civic participation in cleaning up the watershed.

“We need to keep moving forward,” Ryan said. “If there was a quick and easy fix to the problems, we’d already be there.”

email: tpignataro@buffnews.com