Miami Beach Park, a popular recreational area where Middle River flows into the Chesapeake Bay, will be off-limits to swimmers this summer because of the threat of bacteria found in human and animal waste.
Baltimore County environmental officials have not tested for fecal coliform this year but are anticipating problems and don't want to hire lifeguards and then lay them off.
"From a managerial standpoint, we can't be opening and closing parks from week to week," said Elise Armacost, a county spokeswoman. "Even if the levels are fine now, we don't have any assurance we can keep it open, given what has happened the last summer or two."
Elevated bacteria levels prompted the closing of the beach for several weeks in 1997 and again last year. County officials think the most likely cause is waterfowl droppings. The problem is exacerbated, they said, by the park's location.
"The tidal flows are not good," said John F. Weber III, director of the county Department of Recreation and Parks, which manages Miami Beach Park. "The water is shallow. It's very warm."
The bacteria thrive in higher temperatures and, if ingested, can cause nausea, abdominal cramps, diarrhea and vomiting, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
County environmental experts tested for septic-tank problems in the area last summer but found none. Monitoring and efforts to pinpoint the source or sources of the bacteria will continue throughout the summer.
The park's beach, picnic area and playground will remain open, and park officials say they are directing group outings to the beach at Rocky Point Park on Back River.
The loss of a well-used swimming spot has angered County Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, a Perry Hall Democrat who represents the area.
"We need to put a committee together right away. This is ridiculous," Gardina said. "Baltimore County is not doing enough, in my opinion. This has just gotten out of hand. This is a major health issue. We need to put something together and get this under control."
The handful of sunbathers at the sandy strip yesterday - in the shadow of red "no swimming signs" - expressed resignation and regret at the news.
"Even if they were able to open it for half the summer, it would be better than nothing," said Jim Stevenson, 41, owner of an Essex security fence business. "Think of the local community, the restaurants and bars."
Bonnie Kappes, a 41-year-old nurse from Dundalk, said she will continue to visit. "I don't really go in the water," she said as she worked on her tan.
If ducks and geese are found to be the source of contamination, the county's options could be limited. "If it is the birds, that's a difficult problem to deal with," Armacost said.
Weber, the parks director, said he is considering a permanent swimming ban, which would mean that the park would be used for boating and similar activities.