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Officials seek source of bacteria at beach


Frustrated by a beach closing that has entered its second month, state officials are planning a study to determine the cause of high levels of fecal coliform bacteria in the waters off Gunpowder Falls State Park.

Representatives of the state Department of Natural Resources will meet with experts in the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the state Department of the Environment to try to avoid a prolonged closing next summer at the park's Hammerman Area riverfront beach, said John Surrick, a DNR spokesman.

Although a burgeoning resident Canada goose population at the park is apparently contributing to the problem, Surrick said, "We cannot say with certainty what is causing the high levels. ... Before we make a plan to try to solve the problem, we need to know who the culprit is."

Other factors suspected of contributing to the increased levels of bacteria include warm temperatures and runoff caused by unusually rainy weather this summer. Failing septic systems or sewage spills can sometimes cause high levels of bacteria in water, but most of the area near the park is served by public sewers.

Baltimore County environmental officials collected water samples from the Gunpowder River at the beach this week for another round of testing. Samples collected in recent weeks showed that bacteria were not consistently within permissible levels.

Even if the latest testing shows that the bacteria levels have dropped, it is unclear whether the beach could legally open for swimming this late in the year.

Although no lifeguards are on duty after the end of the summer swimming season on Labor Day, the Hammerman beach has in past years remained open for swimming "at your own risk," park officials said.

But William E. Clarke, supervisor of recreational hygiene for the Baltimore County Department of Environmental Protection and Resource Management, said the practice might be illegal, citing a county law that public beaches charging admission must have a lifeguard on duty when open for swimming. Park officials charge an admission fee at the Hammerman Area, which includes picnic areas and the beach.

County environmental officials agreed last week to drop the ban on windsurfing at the beach, said Peyton Taylor, assistant manager of Gunpowder Falls State Park. Throughout the closing, kayaking and sailing have been allowed at the beach.

The closing has cost the park thousands of dollars. The admission fee has been cut in half, to $1. Labor Day weekend normally brings about 5,000 visitors to the park, Taylor said. This year, about 1,500 paid that weekend.

On the first day the Hammerman beach was closed, nearly 100 geese lined the shore. Since then, park workers have made a point to shoo the birds away by mowing grass, grooming beach sand and otherwise causing a commotion near the water.

Taylor said the state Department of the Environment will study samples to determine whether the bacteria came from the geese or from septic systems.

Fecal coliform, a bacteria found in warm-blooded animals, can cause stomach disorders, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea in swimmers and others who come in contact with high levels of it.

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