Bacteria Water

The secret science behind the perfect Cleveland Beach Day

CLEVELAND (Ohio) — Before the bags are packed and the cooler is iced, the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District has been hard at work to ensure your Lake Erie Beach Day is a success.

On a recent day in July, just after 7 a.m., a small group of NEORSD interns and biologists are heading waist-deep into Cleveland’s East Side to provide a much-needed but little-known public service.

This team tests the water quality at Cleveland’s public beaches every day during the summer. It is the goal of this team to provide swimmers with as much information as possible, and help them avoid the health and safety risks that come from swimming in water that’s contaminated by bacteria.

Beachgoers may be familiar with the process if you’ve visited NEORSD’s Facebook page, which shares daily updatesfrom Edgewater Beach/Villa Angela Beach. If they have ever seen the green and the red flags affixed on lifeguard chairs or entrance signs, they will know that NEORSD is monitoring the water daily.

Cleveland Metroparks is responsible for deciding which flag to display on any given day. They also manage both beaches, and they prohibit swimming when the water quality is poor. Metroparks makes decisions based on daily water quality tests conducted by NEORSD. Other factors such as a lack of staff can also close a beach for the day.

The process starts early in the day, when there are few swimmers.

Charlie Schalk, a paraprofessional intern at NEORSD, is today’s tester. She pulls on waders and grabs a see-through container before diving several feet into the water where swimmers typically dunk. She dips her container six inches beneath the surface of the water and then emerges with the sample.

Schalk, along with fellow intern Ryan Grady, then transfer the liquid to a vial before putting it in a portable testing device. Lasers are used to measure the turbidity of the water, which is basically a measure for cloudiness or how much gunk is suspended in the water. The pH level of the water is also measured.

The team reported that rain, wind, and waves increase turbidity, which increases the likelihood of E.coli and other bacteria leaking into lakes where beachgoers were present.

The bacteria could be hiding in the sand or lakebed, perhaps due to animal waste. However, they are agitated by rough weather. Pollution spurs bacteria growth, too.

NEORSD has made massive investments to improve the system. However, many of the region’s sewer pipes were installed decades ago. NEORSD made huge investments in the system. However, many of the sewer pipes in the region were installed decades, if they weren’t even a century ago. Many are municipally owned and expensive to replace.

Many bacteria are found in watersheds that are much higher up, such as residential areas miles away with old pipes, before they eventually reach the lake via stormwater runoff.

This doesn’t appear to be a big problem today. The water appears calm and clear. There is little churn and it hasn’t been raining for a while.

According to the team, Schalk’s results of turbidity tests show that there is little bacteria risk.

After this testing phase is complete, the group will return to NEORSD in Cuyahoga Height with their water samples. They will be cultured. The technicians will be able to determine the amount of bacteria in about 24 hours.

By the time these results are available, it’s too late for many of today’s swimmers.

“You don’t want to wait till tomorrow to find out if you can swim today,” said Eric Soehnlen. He is a field biologist with NEORSD.

NEORSD beach monitoring magic shines in this situation – its forecasting ability is the key.

This kind of outdated information was the only option available to beachgoers in years past. This is not helpful, because the lake conditions and bacteria levels can change rapidly.

So about two decades ago, the sewer district took a new, more-swimmer-friendly approach, Soehnlen said. This method relies on an environmental factor formula to predict bacteria levels.

Turbidity is a crucial piece of data that NEORSD relies on to make this prediction. The biologists of NEORSD also take into account whether or not it has rained within the last 24 to 48 hour, the pH of the water, and the quality of the water near the mouths of Euclid Creek.

Each day, these data points are plugged in to a formula and the official water-quality forecast from NEORSD is produced. The results are either green, “good”, or red “poor”, depending on whether it’s safe to swim or not.

Euclid Beach/Villa Angela Beach recorded 15 days where water quality was rated as poor between May 20 and July 1. Edgewater Beach also experienced 11 days of poor water quality during the same period. All other days, both locations were predicted to have good water quality.

Soehnlen explained that the formula has been tweaked to improve accuracy and reliability over time.

NEORSD officials claim their model is 80% accurate – a much higher accuracy than your favorite weather forecaster.

NEORSD can track the accuracy and make adjustments to its formula if needed, using bacteria samples sent to the laboratory. The results of the tests are not available for another 24 hours but they confirm the accuracy of the forecast made by NEORSD the day before.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey ‘s online tracker, in the 39 days that passed between Memorial Day and the 1st of July this year, 28 out of the 39 days saw the district’s predictions for water quality at Edgewater and Euclid Beaches be accurate. That is 72% of times.

The team also stressed the importance of NEORSD testing every day, including federal holidays and weekends, from Memorial Day through Labor Day. NEORSD is aware that few beaches along Ohio’s Lake Erie coast are tested as frequently.

This daily service is critical for Clevelanders’ health. Soehnlen explained that NEORSD’s “good” or “poor”, designations of water quality were designed with the elderly, and those who are immunocompromised, in mind. He said that even people who are perfectly healthy can get sick if they swim or bathe in water of poor quality.

Cleveland is the largest town on Lake Erie. It is also the most polluted Great Lake, according to different measurements. Cleveland has a large population and a fragile lake ecosystem. Water quality testing is important, especially with so many swimmers.

Increasingly, people are aware of the impact they have on the environment.

Danny Neelon is a biologist and NEORSD’s lead for strategic partnerships. He offered advice to Northeast Ohioans wondering why the water quality of the lake was poor the day that they hoped to visit.

He said that what happens far away from the lake is very important: pick up after your dog. Do not litter or dump grease, oil, or other substances outside. Even washing your car in the driveway could send dirty, soapy water that is contaminated with antifreeze and oil down the drain.

He said, “It will all make its way to the lake.”