Going to the beach may be America's favorite pastime. The EPA estimates that Americans hit the beach 910 million times each year and spend about $44 billion in the process. But chances are good that your favorite beach was closed or posted with a swimming advisory sometime this summer. Last year a record 18,000 beach advisories were issued due to concerns about waterborne illnesses. The EPA requires states like Ohio to monitor and report beach pollution. But critics charge that doesn't solve the problem. One Ohio Lake Erie community may provide some answers. ideastream's Karen Schaefer reports from Port Clinton.
Tom Brown: In our area, much like Florida, they really promote the beaches. I want to see signs outside the city of Port Clinton that say "Beaches Ahead."
That's Tom Brown, mayor of this small northwest Ohio town on the shores of Lake Erie. Boaters know Port Clinton as a gateway to the Lake Erie Islands. The Jet Express ferries thousands of summer visitors from here to Put-in-Bay. But until a few years ago, most people didn't stop and sample the pleasures of this 176-year-old lakeside city. Now Mayor Brown says that's changing.
Tom Brown: We're at the point where we as a town must find new revenues and new ways to do business. And finally after nine years being mayor, I've convinced the community we are a tourist town. We're the crown jewel of Lake Erie, we have everything right at our fingertips, we just need to go do it.
Brown has been doing it since he took office in 1995. He's developed a waterfront revitalization plan, rebuilt docks and piers, added a new ferry and invited resort-style businesses to locate here. He's even instituted a city mascot called Wiley the Walleye and created a New Year's Eve celebration centered around dropping of a 600-pound replica of the fish at the stroke of midnight in the town square. But the mayor says none of this would have been possible if he hadn't first addressed problems with Port Clinton's most important resource - its water.
Tom Brown: When I came in as mayor, the biggest problem I had was that our sewer plant could not handle the amount of sewage and they would just be pumping it into the Portage River. The EPA said you can't do that. He said either build a new plant - I didn't have $17 million - or find a new technology that can handle it.
The technology Brown came up with is relatively new in the U.S. The EPA calls it intermittent sand filtration, where raw sewage is filtered through sand to trap solids and remove contaminants. City employee Tim Fisher gives a demonstration.
Tim Fisher: You can see how clear it looks. The turbidity this morning on the tertiary was 1.83 and out of the tanks was 1.54. The standard for drinking water is one.
Tom Brown: I was here when the first glass of waste water came out and it was so clear I almost wanted to drink it.
In addition to upgrades at the treatment plant, Brown eliminated the city's combined sewers, which overflowed into storm sewers during heavy rains. It all cost about $9 million, half paid for by state and federal grants and the rest by residents, who shoulder some of the highest rates in the state. But Brown believes it was worth it. Dina Pierce, a spokesperson for the Ohio EPA, says it's had a direct impact on Port Clinton's beaches.
Dina Pierce: It is eliminating these combined sewer overflows which is preventing untreated sewage from getting into Lake Erie. Especially when the water is high and it covers more of the beach, then the raw sewage was causing beach contamination.
This summer, Port Clinton beaches never even came close to the levels of bacteria that closed beaches in Cleveland more than a dozen times. But Mayor Brown isn't stopping there. He has plans to restore wetlands on the beach that will trap and purify storm run-off contaminated by city streets. And he wants to replenish eroded beach sand and even add new beaches using an underwater technique to break up wave action, allowing waves to deposit sand instead of carrying it away. Nancy Stoner of the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, D.C. says Port Clinton is doing all the right things to protect a natural resource that's the basis of its economy.
Nancy Stoner: That's absolutely the right approach. And the problem is that that's pretty unusual. We have not invested enough in our sewage systems, in our controls for development, in our controls for agriculture, all these different sources of beach water pollution, we haven't invested enough as a nation.
Stoner says this year the Bush administration cut $500 million from the $4 billion Clean Water State Revolving Fund, the primary source of funding to clean up the sources of beach water contamination. She'd like to see Congress vote to restore funding before the year is out. But if Port Clinton is any example, it may be possible to for even large cities to find creative - and less expensive - solutions to reducing beach pollution. That's Mayor Tom Brown's message.
Tom Brown: If we can save our town and our shoreline, it'll be worth it.
In Port Clinton, Karen Schaefer, 90.3.