Despite Lake Erie's Progress, Sewage Persists in Great Lakes

The number of health advisory days and beach closings along the Lake Erie shoreline in Pennsylvania has been going down. That means there's been less pollution than in years past. But The Allegheny Front's Julie Grant reports that there's still a lot of sewage being dumped into the Great Lakes, and some beach-goers want more to be done to keep the water clean.

Read the transcript »Close the Transcript

Transcript

OPEN: The number of health advisory days and beach closings along the Lake Erie shoreline in Pennsylvania has been going down. That means there's been less pollution than in years past. But The Allegheny Front's Julie Grant reports that there's still a lot of sewage being dumped into the Great Lakes, and some beach-goers want more to be done to keep the water clean.

Public beaches on the Great Lakes test for bacteria levels nearly every day during the summer to let people know how much pollution is in the water. But at most beaches, they take a sample one day, and it takes 24 hours to get the results. So a swimming advisory today is based on the bacteria levels yesterday. It's not really that helpful if you're deciding whether to swim.
[SOUND: walking in water]

There's almost no one at Huntington beach in west Cleveland yet this morning. The water is calm. Bryan Emery wades more than twenty feet in. He looks down and can see right to the bottom.

EMERY: SO IT'S A REALLY CLEAR DAY. YOU CAN SEE PRETTY MUCH EVERYTHING THAT'S GOING ON. ON REALLY TURBID DAYS, USUALLY DAYS THAT IT'S REALLY WAVY, YOU CAN'T SEE THE BOTTOM AT ALL. AND SOME DAYS YOU'LL EVEN GET FLOATING DEBRIS ALONG THE TOP IF IT'S REALLY WAVY.

Emery dips a plastic jar into the water and takes a sample. He wants to check if there are contaminants. Since it hasn't rained much, and there aren't any waves, he doesn't expect much bacteria to show up in the water today. Emery puts his water sample into a machine, it tests the water and predicts very low bacteria counts today. He posts a sign at the beach that says today is a good day for swimming. And Emery updates the beach website, called the Nowcast. It's much quicker than the usual 24 hour bacteria test.

[SOUND: Marnie Urso and daughters.]

By the time Marnie Urso arrives at Huntington with her two little girls, she's checked the Nowcast online. They only live a mile away and love the beach.

URSO: WHEN MY OLDEST DAUGHTER WAS LIKE TWO OR THREE, SHE WOULD ASK IF WE COULD GO TO THE BEACH AND I'D HAVE TO SAY, 'WELL IT RAINED LAST NIGHT, SO WE CAN'T GO TO THE BEACH.' THAT'S HARD FOR A YOUNG CHILD TO UNDERSTAND THAT WHEN IT RAINS, THE BEACH IS NOT REALLY A GOOD PLACE TO GO.

Rain can kick up the bacteria at the bottom of the Lake, which is one reason it makes the beaches bad for swimming. Rain also drains off farmland, off rooftops, roads and parking lots. It collects chemical, oil and other pollution along the way and drains into nearby waterways and eventually ends up in Lake Erie. That stormwater runoff also fills up the sewers. In many older cities, like Cleveland, stormwater runoff and waste water from our toilets go to the same underground pipes. When those pipes aren't big enough to hold all the water, the mix of stormwater and untreated sewage is released directly into the Great Lakes.

URSO: IT'S JUST AMAZING TO ME THAT WE STILL ALLOW RAW SEWAGE TO BE DUMPED STRAIGHT INTO THE LAKE.

Some cities, like Erie, have fixed their sewer systems. Erie spent more than 100-million dollars to reduce the pollution dumping into Lake Erie. But many other cities, such as Detroit, Toledo and Cleveland still release raw sewage into the Lake on a regular basis. The Cleveland area has spent millions of dollars to improve its sewers but the region still dumps pollution into the Lake when there's a heavy rain. So, now the sewer system is trying something new. Frank Greenland is with the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District. It plans to tax every homeowner, car dealership, and office park for the stormwater runoff pollution coming from their property.

GREENLAND: BECAUSE THEY ARE CONTRIBUTING TO THE PROBLEM. PLAIN AND SIMPLE, WE ARE ALL CONTRIBUTING TO THE PROBLEM.

The more impervious surface a property has, the more taxes the owner pays.

[BEACH sound.]

Back at Huntington Beach, mother Marnie Urso says Congress needs to help cities pay the massive costs of renovating their sewer systems so they don't dump into the Lakes. While she's waiting for all of these efforts, she's glad the beach near her house in Cleveland is giving up to date bacteria counts. The beaches in Erie don't do this. Most Pennsylvania beaches still need 24 hours to measure pollution rates. Health officials in Erie say they're trying to find ways to get information about high bacteria days to the public more quickly.