Harwich puts off closing ponds

A divided board of health waits for more bacteria tests before voting to shut down popular swimming areas.(7/8/98 Cape Cod Times)

By ROBIN LORD

STAFF WRITER

HARWICH - Harwich's board of health is considering closing two ponds to swimming, because of high levels of fecal coliform bacteria. Routine tests taken in John Josephs, Bucks, Kittys and Sand Lake ponds in Harwich late last week showed extremely high levels of bacteria at two spots in Bucks Pond. According to town health director Paula Champagne, test samples showed levels of 800, 1,600 and "too numerous to count," in two spots in Bucks Pond on Rainbow Way. The state generally recommends that a swimming area be closed when coliform levels exceed 235 colonies of bacteria per 100 milliliters of water. But the board of health voted yesterday to await further results before closing the ponds. Lower, but still elevated, levels were found at numerous other spots around the ponds. The ponds are known collectively as Great Sand Lakes. The ponds are bounded roughly by Route 39, John Joseph's Road and Queen Anne Road. The area falls within a water resource protection zone of the town, which is a recharge area for one of the town's drinking-water wells.

Champagne said the water level of the ponds is so high, they have blended into one big lake now. There are also several houses in the area that are nearly surrounded by water because of the high water table. Champagne said road runoff and sump-pump effluent runoff, as well as flooded septic systems, are the likely culprits. The test samples were taken during storm conditions. Coliform bacteria come from warm-blooded animals and are generally not disease-carrying agents, according to George Heufelder, environmental program manager for the county health department. Although the county has not had any other reports of questionable levels in other towns' ponds, he said a spike in bacteria counts following a storm is not unusual. Heufelder said the drinking water and swimming bacteria standard, set in the 1950s, is very conservative. "Generally, the public health threat is very minimal," when the standard is exceeded, he said.

The Harwich ponds, which have nearly 200 homes on and around their shores, have three popular swimming areas. They are located on Clearwater Lane and Pleasant Park Circle on Buck's Pond, and Vacation Lane on John Joseph's Pond. Test samples at the swimming areas were well below the state closure level, Champagne said. Levels at Clearwater Beach on Buck's Pond were 30 colonies per 100 milliliters of water. Levels at the beaches on the north side of the ponds were between 135 to 180 colonies. Board of health member Alfred Hurst yesterday said the evidence was enough for him to want to close the ponds to swimming as a precautionary measure. "As a member of the board of health, and as a physician licensed in the state of Massachusetts, I cannot see how we cannot close the swimming areas in these lakes," he told the board. Board member Linda Schultz voted along with him, but Ronald Hindman and chairman Robert Germain voted against the closures, arguing they should wait until samples taken yesterday come back. The sample results are expected later today or early tomorrow.

Champagne said public health practice is to take several samples over a period of time and different conditions before closing swimming areas. She advised the board to wait until the sample results from yesterday's and today's tests come back before deciding whether to close the ponds. Great Sand Lakes Association president Robin Wilkins said the group, which has about 156 families, was advised by the town of higher-than-normal levels of bacteria at the association's monthly meeting on June 27. Several members were told about the latest levels last Friday, and the entire organization was expected to be updated at a meeting last night. Not all residents who live around the ponds are members of the association.