High bacteria levels raise concerns at beach

Source of contamination at Arundel site uncertain

July 27, 2002|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

Mary Dorr remembers practically living at Herald Harbor's small community beach in the summer months when she was a young mother raising water-loving children.

"It was great," said Dorr, 79, who has lived in the waterfront Crownsville neighborhood since the 1940s. "The water was clean, and the beach used to be so crowded you could hardly move."

But for the past couple of years, Herald Harbor's sliver of Severn River beachfront hasn't seen much activity. A private testing program that monitors the water quality of areas along the river has found consistently high levels of bacteria in the water at the beach off Bonaparte Road.

In a county with 150 small private beaches that mostly go unmonitored, Herald Harbor residents are well-informed. State law requires only that the county's five public swimming beaches be regularly tested by health officials.

Herald Harbor, however, participates in a summer water-quality testing program, Operation Clearwater, sponsored for 28 years by the Severn River Association and run by Sally Hornor, a microbiology professor at Anne Arundel Community College.

Community associations pay $330 for 16 weeks of testing or $170 for eight weeks. Water samples are collected Wednesdays from 20 sites and analyzed at the community college lab. Hornor posts the data online the next day. If the counts are above recommended levels, she notifies the designated person for the area.

It's a program that wins qualified praise from Sarah Chasis, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, which released this week a study showing beach closures on the rise nationally, mainly due to high bacteria levels from human or animal waste.

"These community beaches, which are smaller and more remote, are not monitored," said Chasis. "This [Operation Clearwater] is good because there are still gaps that exist. But ideally we want to see states and local authorities take responsibility for doing that kind of testing."

The problems at Herald Harbor reflect the situation highlighted in the council's report, "Testing the Waters 2002." The study found that Maryland had 262 beach closures and warnings last year, compared with 111 in 2000. The closings were mainly in Calvert, Cecil and Queen Anne's counties. None was in Anne Arundel County.

County health officials take some steps to keep the public informed. In addition to weekly water-testing at the five public beaches to ensure swimmer safety, the county samples more than 70 creeks and streams each week to monitor overall water quality and detect trends.

"We do investigate any problems or complaints at the beaches," said Spencer Franklin, deputy director with the county Health Department's division of community and environmental health.

During the past two years, Operation Clearwater's weekly water samples from Herald Harbor have shown consistently high concentrations of Enterococci. The organism is found in the intestines of warm-blooded animals, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends against swimming when the average Enterococci count for exceeds 35 per 100 milliliters of water for 30 days.

Since this summer's testing began May 15, the bacteria levels at Herald Harbor have ranged from 80 to 1,810 per 100 milliliters of water. The only acceptable results - 4 and 25 per hundred milliliters - were recorded during the first two weeks of the program.

The president of the Herald Harbor Citizens Association, Janet Clauson, has asked Hornor to take water samples farther from the shore to compare readings.

Developed in the mid-1920s as a summer destination, Herald Harbor has evolved into a community of about 940 year-round homeowners. Many live in the original beach bungalows, and others have built larger homes in the neighborhood.

Hornor and Herald Harbor residents have attributed the high bacteria levels to the large number of birds in the area. That theory was bolstered earlier this month when a relatively low count of 80 was registered after a storm, which typically produces high counts.

"That leads me to believe this is not something washing in from the surrounding watershed," Hornor said. "I feel the strongest evidence is for ... birds or maybe a failing septic in the area."

Last summer, in response to community complaints, county Health Department officials visited Herald Harbor but found no health hazard to humans.

"We found a lot of ducks," Franklin said. "Aesthetically it might be pretty bad, but we're looking for a source of human sewage pollution."

Hornor still questions the safety of the water.

"Waterfowl in general carry many of the same pathogens that humans do, and I personally would not want to swim in that water," she said.

When bacteria counts exceed recommended levels, Hornor informs volunteer community contacts. In Herald Harbor, that person is longtime resident Sue Caldwell, who posts the test results at the beach and the community center.

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