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It's been a bad year for safe swimming at Woodlawn – or has it?

It’s been a frustrating summer for those who want to swim at Woodlawn State Park.

Erie County health officials banned swimming 38 out of 56 days because their forecast models predicted poor water quality. What’s more annoying? On at least 22 of those days, the water turned out better than forecast and was safe for swimming.

“Something’s happening and all of us are frustrated,” said Brett Hayhurst, a hydrologist at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Ithaca office. “You want to make sure beaches are open when they’re clean.”

On a positive note, officials usually did not allow swimming when the water was unsafe. Allowing swimming when the water quality was poor happened 14 times through July 19 two years ago at Woodlawn. It’s happened only four times as of July 19 this year, according to a Buffalo News analysis of beach closings and water quality data.

While the county’s Virtual Beach model is getting better at banning swimming when it should be banned, it’s worse this year for banning swimming when conditions are good. The county closed the beach to swimming at Woodlawn when it didn’t have to 42 percent of the time.

That’s the highest among the Erie County beaches, but Woodlawn’s not alone.

Swimming was banned at Hamburg Town Beach seven times this summer when results later confirmed bacterial levels were safe enough to allow swimming – despite the forecast model’s calling for a beach closure. The same thing happened six times at Bennett and the Town of Evans beaches and three times at Lake Erie Beach.

“That’s bizarre,” said Patrick Murphy, an Angola native and former lifeguard who collected daily water samples at Evans Town Beach about a decade ago.

Murphy and his family have since moved to Utah but recalled his days on the beach during a visit back there this week.

"We'd have to run down here if there was anyone in the water and explain to them how dangerous it was," Murphy said. "We actually had to tell them to get out of the water. It was tough."

Better safe than sorry

The Erie County Health Department uses the federally maintained Virtual Beach modeling system to decide whether to ban swimming at the county’s beaches. In its fourth summer, the model serves as a tool that helps the county safeguarding public health on days when swimming isn't safe.

During the summers of 2015 and 2016, beaches opened a combined 74 days when sampling data later showed the water wasn’t safe. The county allowed swimming in bad water on 10 days so far this summer.

“From a health perspective, we’re doing better,” Hayhurst said.

Health officials tweaked some of the parameters used by the model to err on the side of caution for 2017. That probably also accounts for a bulk of Erie County’s 44 seemingly unnecessary closures this summer. Beaches were closed 15 and 12 times, respectively, in 2015 and 2016 when forecasts projected unsafe water conditions but subsequent lab testing showed otherwise.

“Our No. 1 priority is to make sure that the water is safe for the public to swim in,” said Dolores Funke, director of environmental health at the Erie County Health Department. “When we factor this into a modeling procedure, we need to pick a conservative value that helps to keep the public safe.”

A lifeguard watches swimmers at Woodlawn Beach State Park. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Although it hasn't logged any reports of illness attributable to contaminated water this year, Funke acknowledges the system isn’t perfect – especially at Woodlawn, where turbid streams have always made it a challenge to predict water quality. Woodlawn accounts for 40 percent of this year’s occasions when the model predicted safe water for swimming when it did not turn out that way.

That's just that sort of risk that makes Springville mother Liz Becker leery about bringing her almost 2-year-old son Alex to Woodlawn like she did Wednesday.

Becker said a friend's child was hospitalized this week at Buffalo's Children's Hospital for an apparent mysterious bacterial infection that was initially thought to be appendicitis. Although it's unclear whether a waterborne pathogen caused the illness, she said the family had visited the beach at Sunset Bay just before the child took ill. Becker said she lectured Alex about making sure he kept his mouth closed while he was swimming.

"I don't want to take this away from him," Becker said. "But, when you hear what happens, you worry."

Luckily, no one reported getting sick at Woodlawn on or after June 7.

That was the day the model forecast a generally safe 94 colony forming units for bacteria per 100 milliliters of water.

Sampling later showed there were really about 2,600 units – more than 10 times the 235-unit limit for sanitary safety.

“It was clear water that day,” Hayhurst said. “We don’t know why we had such a high hit.”

Virtual Beach

Virtual Beach, a statistics-based modeling system developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Geological Survey, uses site-specific criteria to forecast whether water at recreational beaches is safe for swimming or polluted by fecal bacteria at unsafe levels.

Early every morning, health department employees collect weather and other environmental data from each beach and input them into a computer software program. The data covers water turbidity, temperature, wind speed, wind direction, water currents, stream flow, rainfall, wave heights and wave direction among other parameters. The model forecasts probabilities that the water quality will exceed the swimming safety threshold.

The county began using the system in 2014 on a trial basis at Woodlawn, Evans and Lake Erie beaches and expanded it to include Hamburg and Bennett beaches in 2015. It allows health officials to make a call on whether to open the beach to swimming or close it much earlier in the day and post their verdict on the USGS's Nowcast beach forecasting website.

As a measure of quality control, water samples taken from the beach are also tested. Laboratory results usually take about 24 hours to process, but they are compared against what the model predicted. Then, adjustments can be made.

“Every year we collect more data, which helps to improve our models in subsequent years,” Funke said.

The model is substantially less effective at forecasting clean and dirty water at Erie County’s beaches this season. So far, the modeling system has only a 59 percent success rate at gauging whether the beach should be open or closed. Last year, it was 79 percent successful and it forecast correctly 73 percent of the time in 2015. Besides some of the stricter, more conservative controls, authorities also attribute the drop-off to weather conditions and still unknown phenomena.

For some beachgoers such as Kristin Francis, of Niagara Falls, who spent Wednesday with her family at Evans Town Beach, clean water is just a matter of perspective.

"Any water we go to around here we have to worry about," Francis said. "We live in Niagara Falls."

Even with some of this year's hiccups, health officials still think what they have now beats their old system. Before 2014, swimming safety for any given day was forecast using the prior day’s recorded rainfall and laboratory results.

“Since the laboratory analysis takes 24 hours, this approach could not take into account the conditions at the beach on the day in question,” Funke said. “We wanted to do better.”

Woodlawn’s woes

Inaccurate forecasts are most likely to happen at Woodlawn, while the most accurate are at Lake Erie Beach at Point Breeze, the News’ analysis shows. Woodlawn’s location is both its biggest asset and largest problem. Just seven miles from downtown Buffalo, the vast white sands at Woodlawn are a huge draw for beachgoers.

“The beach itself is nice,” said John Licht, of Cheektowaga. “And, there’s a playground for kids.”

The public perceives the beach’s proximity to the nearby Southtowns Advanced Wastewater Treatment Facility as the reason swimming is so often banned. But, that’s not the reality.

Overflows from the upgraded plant aren’t common. When they happen, the water is disinfected first and discharged a distance out into Lake Erie. What’s more, the recent completion of the multi-million Rush Creek Interceptor project eliminated sewage overflows from the nearby Blasdell Treatment plant and pump stations at Electric Avenue, Blasdell and Labelle.

So why so many beach closures at Woodlawn?

Woodlawn’s proximity to urban runoff, stormwater outfalls and a lack of wetland areas to clean it before it gets to the lake and decaying leaves and other organic matter impair the water quality. Its geographic positioning, in a nook at the extreme eastern end of Lake Erie, could also play a role, according to Hayhurst.

Hayhurst admits that it's just conjecture at this point, but early analysis shows small gyres near Woodlawn appear to be created by water currents moving up the lake's eastern end approaching Buffalo. They could help direct turbid water toward the beach.

"It would be a very good research project for somebody," Hayhurst said.

Models correctly closed Woodlawn 15 times this year. Water samples later confirmed high levels of bacteria in the water on those days. On 22 other occasions, the beach was closed because water turbidity data suggested it should be. Water turbidity is one of the main indicators of foul water. Funke said the particulates in the water “provide a medium for bacteria to attach and grow.”

Hayhurst said waters have been exceptionally turbid this year, especially from Rush Creek, which runs into the water. For some unknown reason that changed this year, water samples often show much lower levels of bacteria than forecast.

“We don’t know why,” Hayhurst said.

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