Oakland Beach was open for swimming for the first time in 15 days yesterday and while there were a number of people enjoying time in the sun and sand, no one was in the waves.
The three lifeguards on duty, Amanda Goodinson, Shianne Silvia and Patrick Luiz, said they had not seen anyone in the water all day. According to the trio, a few people had dipped their feet in the water to cool off, but nothing more.
“It’s kind of windy,” said Goodinson, adding that the less than perfect beach weather may have kept people out of the water.
However, when asked if they believed more beachgoers would make their way to the water now that bacteria levels are acceptable, Goodinson wasn’t so sure.
“If it’s been open one day and closed the next, I think people will be smart enough to realize something isn’t right,” said Goodinson.
Since beach season began on May 25 of this year, Oakland Beach waters have been closed a total of 23 days, first from June 12 to June 20 and again from June 25 to July 10.
For comparison, according to Beach Monitoring Data on the Rhode Island Department of Health’s (DOH) website, Oakland Beach was only closed for two days in summer 2012.
According to Joseph Wendelken, the weekend public information officer for DOH, the bacteria level in the water at Oakland Beach reached a peak of 24,200 colony-forming units per 100 milliliters (cfu/100ml) on June 27 of this year.
DOH performs tests on the concentration of Enterocci bacteria, an indicator of the presence of fecal matter in the water column, to test beach water. For salt water, the acceptable level is 104 cfu/100ml.
“We cannot say definitively why the levels were so high. There was a lot of seaweed in the water that day, which may have caused the results to stay this high,” said Wendelken in an e-mail. “Further sampling showed bacteria levels decreasing over time, which is a good sign and show there may not have been a continuous source of contamination.”
As of Monday, the bacteria level was at an acceptable 10 cfu/100ml.
Tiffany and Taylor Gion were visiting Oakland Beach for the day yesterday from Connecticut.
“We were here last week for the first time and the water was closed,” recalls Tiffany.
Frequent beachgoers, Tiffany admits she doesn’t tend to go in the water regardless, but Taylor enjoys spending time in the ocean on hot days.
She has yet to go in the water at Oakland Beach.
Tiffany said hearing about the high bacteria levels and frequent closings certainly makes her and Taylor more hesitant to go in the water.
Even as lifeguards, Goodinson and Silvia admitted they would not swim in the water after hearing about the high bacteria levels.
According to the DOH website, swimming in or swallowing polluted water at closed beaches can cause illness, but they are typically not serious and require little or no treatment. The most common would be “gastroenteritis, an inflammation of the stomach and the intestines.” Symptoms include vomiting, headaches and fever. Other illnesses from swimming in contaminated water include ear, eye and throat infections, rashes, and sometimes salmonella.
Contaminated water doesn’t just make people sick or make them avoid the water. According to Tom Kutcher, bay keeper at Save The Bay, high bacteria levels can have both short-term and long-term effects on the bay.
While it is the bacteria that cause problems for humans, it is the nutrients in human and animal waste that causes problems for the ecosystem of the bay.
Locally, Kutcher says high levels of bacteria lead to a large amount of macro-algae, or sea lettuce.
“We’ve had a big sea lettuce problem in Greenwich Bay,” said Kutcher.
He explained that sea lettuce uses the oxygen out of the water, causing low and zero oxygen events in the bay. This year, Bullock’s Point Reach in the upper Bay is almost at zero oxygen and Greenwich Bay is at less than 1 milligram per liter.
“It’s bad news,” said Kutcher.
In the short term, a lack of oxygen in the bay will affect the fish in the area. A few years ago, the large fish kill in the area was caused by a no-oxygen event. Kutcher believes the fish were trapped in the area by a predator and could not leave.
“They could not swim anywhere except anoxic water,” said Kutcher.
Most of the time, the bay keeper says the fish can swim away from the anoxic area. In the long-term, however, more stationary creatures such as clams, quahogs, crabs and other shellfish will die due to lack of oxygen.
All of this can stem from human and animal waste in the water.
In the case of Oakland Beach, Kutcher believes the most likely cause of the high bacteria level is human or pet waste trapped in the water table from cesspools or storm water runoff from streets and sewer flooding that makes its way into the bay.
“It could be a combination of things,” said Kutcher, adding that it is also possible the area tested by DOH at Oakland Beach could have been an abnormality or hot spot. “It is really hard to pinpoint.”
Kutcher said the area surrounding Oakland Beach is very densely populated and older homes could have outdated septic systems, which leads to leaks. If the bacteria from a septic tank gets into the soil and there are not many trees or plants to absorb it, it will eventually make its way to the bay.
Janine Burke, executive director of the Warwick Sewer Authority, said that at least 90 percent of Oakland Beach residences are tied into city sewers. She was aware of the high readings, calling them “crazy,” but had no explanation.
In contrast to Oakland Beach, Goddard Park’s beach, which is directly across the bay, was only closed for swimming for six days, from June 11 to June 17.
“There is a big buffer of trees [around Goddard],” said Kutcher. “All sorts of trees, they tend to treat things as they go through the soil.”
Kutcher also explained that bacteria levels could often be contributed to rain.
“Beach closures are directly related to rainfall,” said Kutcher, citing sewer overflows as another major problem. He admits large municipalities have found a way to handle those overflows, but it is still an issue in some areas.
Kutcher says it is likely the lack of rain over the last week contributed to the lowering of the bacteria level because ground water may be flowing very little or not at all to the bay, allowing the bacteria to flush out.
Kutcher says solving high bacteria levels requires a long-term solution. Save The Bay has been working to gain public support for legislation that would phase out cesspools. Although it did not pass this session, Kutcher says it is “still alive and should be revived next session.”
Kutcher said Save The Bay is also looking at finding a way to deal with storm water in the long-term.
“Both involve an investment, but it is an investment in our bay,” he said.