Checking if Ohio lakes are safe to swim in is unfortunately not that easy

CLEVELAND, OH (WOIO) - It's just about summer in Ohio and a dip in a lake maybe the perfect thing for the family.

But how do you know if it's clean and safe?

The first thing you should know is no lake in Ohio is clean and free from bacteria, and yes that's gross.

There are multiple state and local agency that test lakes, like Lake Erie, on a daily basis and report the numbers on a couple of websites.

But unless you're a lab tech they're not easy to decipher.

Cleveland 19 is not only going to guide you through it, we're asking why it's not easier.

How it works

Whether or not a lake gets an "Advisory," meaning there's a better shot at getting sick making it not safe, comes down to just how much bacteria is in the water at any given time.

The number you need to know is 235 colonies of bacteria found in a test size of 100 mL of lake water.

If they find 235 colonies or more there's a chance it could make children, elderly or even pregnant women sick.

That number is set by the Ohio EPA.

"Beach advisories are triggered by exceedances of the single sample maximum value of 235 E. coli colony forming units/100 ml for bathing waters," according to Ohio EPA fact sheet.

The problem is when you look at interactive websites it's not always easy to find that number.

For example, on the site used by the Ohio Department of Health, "BEACHGUARD" uses a map with flags.

If a lake or beach gets a yellow flag it has an advisory.

It doesn't do much to explain, why, or by how much over the 235 colonies mark a given beach has.

By clicking on the beach you get limited information that explains just how bad it is.

Using Lagoons Beach in Vermilion as an example, you can see there's a yellow flag at the time this article was published.

But when you click through to the advisories it indicates the last advisory expired on June 8.

So why is there still a yellow flag? Should you swim there or not?

We've asked the Ohio Department of Health (ODH) why it looks like it was an old post.

According to Megan Smith with OHD, "A new E. coli contamination alert was posted for Lagoon's Beach sometime earlier today (reflected in BeachGuard) by Erie County Health District after a new water sample (BeachGuard indicates the sample date was yesterday) showed E. coli back above the contamination alert threshold."

Smith does point out people can sign-up to get alerts for beaches by going to this link.

Testing the water at beaches in the Cleveland area is handled by the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District (NEORSD) which uses an entirely different interactive site run by the United States Geological Survey called "NowCast."

At least on NowCast there's a green icon to swim or a red icon of an advisory to stay out of the water that takes out some of the guessing.

Clicking on one of the icon gives you a report like this one for Edgewater Beach in Cleveland.

But again, when you want to find out just how "clean" the lake is at Edgewater by looking at test results it's about as clear as the lake itself.

In the picture below you can see there's a column for "E.coli" and "Estimated E.coli."

The problem is it take 24 hours for actual results.

That's why the NEORSD uses a model to come up with the estimated amount of E.coli which they claim is about 80 percent accurate.

And as you can see the levels of E.coli can vary greatly based on the day.

For example on June 5 there was a spike of 768.

That means there were 768 colonies of bacteria found in a 100 mL sample which is way over the state recommended level of 235.

The spikes you see are generally because of heavy rainfall which can wash everything from goose, dog and bird poop into the lake along with oils and pesticides.

The NEORSD encourages people to check it's Twitter page for daily updates to the Cleveland Beaches which is extremely helpful.

The good news according to Jean Smith with NEORSD, is because of the billions of dollars being spent to update sewer projects, less and less raw sewage is being dumped into Lake Erie on days where there's heavy rain.

"In the 1970's, the Edgewater overflow discharged 40 to 50 times a year. Today, it's about once every two years," Smith said.

The Ohio Department of Health also has a Facebook page titled Ohio Healthy and Safe Pools and Beaches but it hasn't been updated since November of 2017.

Cleveland 19 has asked why, and is awaiting an answer.

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