June 2010 Issue
Good Natured: Making Room for Nature in Our Busy Lives
Healthy Beaches = Happy Summer Memories
Nothing says summer like a day at the beach. Warm sand on bare skin, scent of suntan lotion in the air, gulls squabbling fiercely over some mystery tidbit only a gull would eat. All these things remind us that we’ve made it to the lazy days.
This summer, plenty of Ohioans will pack up the car and take the family to a favorite place in the Carolinas or some other Atlantic coastal beach, where they will pay a lot to rent a beach house and get sunburned for free.
But plenty others will stay closer to home, traveling a shorter distance to enjoy one of the thousand or so freshwater beaches stretching along 5,500 miles of shoreline in the eight Great Lakes states. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, these beaches provide 30 million people with access to shoreline recreation. In Ohio alone, visits to the state parks with Lake Erie beaches number 4 million a year.
For lakeside communities, there is gold buried in beach sand. About 10 years ago, researchers at the Ohio Sea Grant surveyed visitors to 14 beaches along Ohio’s Lake Erie shoreline and found that beach-goers spent nearly $20 million in beach communities, or about $1.4 million per beach.
So beaches are good for people and their communities, and they can be good for nature, too. In talking with Dr. Jeffrey Reutter, director of Ohio State University's F.T. Stone Laboratory and Sea Grant, I learned that beaches are popular with migrating shorebirds, that near-shore waters are important nursery areas for fish, and that some beaches provide habitat for native beach plants, which in turn help prevent the beaches from washing away.
Where to Go?
More than a dozen beaches can be found along the Lake Erie Coastal Trail; some of the most popular include: Maumee Bay State Park, Cedar Point, East Harbor State Park, Nickel Plate Beach in Huron, Kelleys Island State Park, Lorain’s Lakeview Park, Huntington Beach in Bay Village, and Headlands Beach State Park and Nature Preserve in Mentor.
Ohio beaches have had their struggles, though. Shoreline alterations, pollution, and high water levels have taken a toll, and it can be difficult to find just the right place to take the family. So before you stock up on sunscreen and load the family into the minivan, here are a few tips for finding a healthy beach environment.
(1) Clean water
Water quality on Ohio’s Lake Erie beaches had bacteria exceeding health standards about 19 percent of the time in 2008. Ohio isn’t unique in this regard. Across the country, visitors experienced 20,341 closings and advisories at U.S. beaches in 2008, according to the NRDC’s beach report.
The most common causes for high bacteria levels include overflows from sewers during heavy rain, as well as geese and gulls. Check with your local health department before heading to the beach, to find out whether advisories have been issued. And always practice these tips for safe swimming: Select beaches that are regularly tested (you’d be surprised how many aren’t), keep your head above water and avoid swimming the day after a heavy rainfall.
(2) Native flora and fauna
To be honest, a lot of Ohio’s beaches have lost much of their natural character, with flow patterns interrupted by jetties, and near-shore wetlands overrun by exotic invasive species like the common reed. But at beaches that maintain their natural character, like the one at Headland Dunes State Nature Preserve, you’ll find the plants that once grew over most Great Lakes beaches, like American beach grass, seaside spurge, inland sea rocket, beach pea and purple sand grass.
Because our beaches have been altered, it can be hard to connect the dots between natural habitat and animal species like birds, for example. On many Ohio beaches, a killdeer may attempt to lure you away from its nest by affecting a broken wing. But killdeer will accept a wide variety of habitat; they’re not unique to the beach.
A better indicator may be the common tern (despite its name, it’s really quite rare), which prefers beaches and islands with sparse vegetation. In Lake Erie’s western basin the common tern has been making a comeback, sometimes with the help of artificial nesting platforms.
Come July, though, the southward migration of shore birds begins, says James Cole, The Nature Conservancy’s bird conservation manager in Ohio. Once it begins, the migration will bring many migrating shore birds to Ohio beaches, including piping plover, whimbrel, willet, American avocet, ruddy turnstone, sanderling and dunlin.
(3) Clear water
Fertilizers from farms and back yards run off into lake tributaries and cause algae to grow wildly in Lake Erie’s warm near-shore shallows. Large green slicks of algae are a common sight at some beaches, and large mats of dead vegetation wash up on shore. Soil eroded from farms and construction sites can cloud the water at a swimming beach. If you’re thinking of bringing your mask and snorkel, better find a beach that isn’t experiencing these problems.
(4) No Garbage
It is discouraging to see a beautiful beach littered with plastic bags, soda cans and cigarette butts, but that’s the reality of many recreational beaches. And while some of it is dumped by beach-goers themselves, much of it washes in from locations that might be many miles from shore.
“When we talk about preventing litter from entering the Great Lakes, we have to talk about keeping it out of the tributary rivers,” says Reutter. “Everything that gets in to one of the coastal tributaries is eventually going to get into Lake Erie.”
And if that isn’t bad enough, a natural phenomenon known as “littoral drift” helps keep that trash close to shore, instead of washing it out into the open lake. So the trash we carelessly discard miles upstream may come back to haunt us at the beach.
How You Can Help
What can you do to help? Ohio Sea Grant has many ideas for how you can help keep Lake Erie clean and its beaches healthy. Here are a few:
- Keep your trash out of the lake, and out of Lake Erie tributary streams.
- Use low-phosphate laundry and dishwashing detergents.
- Use lawn fertilizer carefully, keep it out of the storm drains, and choose those that have low (or no) levels of phosphorus.
If, in the end, you decide to pack up the car and head for the ocean beaches, you can follow similar tips for making sure your Atlantic beach is healthy.
Wherever you go, have a safe, happy trip. And don’t forget the sunscreen.
Josh Knights is Executive Director of The Nature Conservancy’s
Ohio program. He can be reached at email@example.com. Read more about The
Nature Conservancy’s work at nature.org/ohio
Testing the Waters: Swimming in the Great Lakes/National Resources Defense Council: http://www.nrdc.org/water/oceans/ttw/greatlakes.pdf
Beach survey, Ohio Sea Grant: http://www.ohioseagrant.osu.edu/_documents/publications/FS/FS-082-L%20Economics%20of%20Lake%20Erie%20beaches%20Lakeview%20Park.pdf
Plain Dealer story on beach closings: http://blog.cleveland.com/metro/2009/07/ohios_lake_erie_beaches_ranked.html
TNC coastal beach page: http://www.nature.org/wherewework/features/art31022.html
Sea Grant fact sheet on keeping Lake Erie clean: http://ohioseagrant.osu.edu/_documents/publications/FS/FS-090%20Lake%20Erie%20Keeping%20it%20a%20Great%20Lake.pdf
Lake Erie Beach Guide: http://ohioseagrant.osu.edu/_documents/publications/GS/GS-024LakeErieBeachGuide.pdf
NRDC’s overall beach report: http://www.nrdc.org/water/oceans/ttw/titinx.asp