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After decades-long effort, the Rochester Embayment may no longer be an 'area of concern'

Two children in swimsuits are kneeling to play in the sand along the shore of Durand-Eastman Beac, with other swimmers and a couple of boats visible in the distance.
File Photo
Children play on Durand-Eastman Beach.

Nearly 40 years ago, a US-Canadian regulatory agency designated a stretch of Lake Ontario shoreline from Bogus Point in the town of Parma and to Nine Mile Point in Webster as the Rochester Embayment Area of Concern.

At the time, officials identified more than a dozen problems, including the loss of key habitat and species, pollution that led to warnings not to eat the fish, and frequent beach closings related to water quality.

But now, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the state Department of Environmental Conservation, and Monroe County are recommending the removal of that designation. The reason? After three decades worth of projects spanning the region, the embayment's health has improved greatly.

"You couldn't swim in the beaches," said Starr O'Neill, Monroe County's manager of environmental health. "So think about how often we had to close the beach because of algae contamination, right? There was just the over production of algae and build-up over there by the pier in Charlotte beach. And now people go there and use this area for so many different things."

The state Department of Environmental Conservation is taking comments through July 30 on the recommendation to remove the “area of concern" designation. And the agency will hold a public input session from 5 to 7 p.m. on Tuesday in the Kate Gleason Auditorium at the Rundel library building on South Avenue.

For many, the beach closings were the most visible sign that something was wrong, in large part because of the algae people could see and could smell rotting.

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In 1987, the binational International Joint Commission, which coordinates management of water bodies that straddle the U.S.-Canada border, listed 43 spots in the Great Lakes as areas of concern. The designation indicated that those places had experienced serious environmental degradation, and identified specific problems with each.

Locally, Monroe County led a committee that convened to develop and carry out a remedial action plan to clean up and restore the embayment. Beach closings and algae were targets from the start.

"I'm not sure that everybody realized that algae was a big part of the problem with the swimming, but it didn't look great," said Margy Peet, a former county employee who chaired the committee. "It didn't smell great. It had high bacteria counts."

The algae were being fed by nutrients carried into the lake by storm water and the Genesee River. Some of that pollution came from small water treatment plants upstream, and some of it came from farmland. During storms, fertilizer and manure would wash off the fields into the water bodies.

A lake sturgeon fingerling in a hand
Jeremy Moule
State and federal agencies released 1,015 fingerling sturgeon into the Genesee River during a single-day of stocking in 2014. The agencies began reintroducing the native fish to Lake Ontario in 2003.

The committee coordinated projects across the river and embayment watersheds, the areas which one way or another drained into them.

Monroe County transitioned from small wastewater treatment plants spread around the county to a centralized sewage and stormwater treatment system. Professors from SUNY Brockport and other institutions worked with farmers in the Genesee Valley to develop new tactics for applying fertilizers or avoiding them altogether.

The success of the projects is reflected in the beach closings data.

In 2010, Ontario Beach Park was closed to swimming more than it was open, county data show. By 2018 the closures were down to roughly one out of every eight days.

Durand-Eastman Beach saw similar improvement.

Many of the other projects addressed historic pollution from Rochester industries and the loss of crucial coastal wetlands that supported species such as mink and migratory birds, and provided spawning grounds for some fish.

In some cases, that meant dredging sediment in specific hotspots, such as Genesee River wetlands north of the former Kodak Park, where silver used in making photographic products had built up. In and along the 2,000-acre Braddock Bay wetlands, it meant projects to reduce erosion and to clear out areas of some ponds that had become choked with cattails.

Those projects were just a few of many. But over time the improvements were substantial, to the point that in 2003, the U.S. Geological Survey working with the Seneca Park Zoo and other partners reintroduced sturgeon into the lake and river. The sturgeon had been driven out of the waters by overfishing and pollution.

In 2021, a U.S. Geological Survey crew found spawning female sturgeon in the Genesee River for the first time in over 50 years.

O'Neill said that officials now will be working to make people aware of the improvements and what they can do to keep the lake healthy. She added that once the area of concern designation is lifted, which could happen by spring 2025, that doesn't mean it's time to ignore the lake.

"Things degrade, you gotta keep maintaining things," O'Neill said. "You might find new things that need to be taken care of. But it's not just oh, we can walk away and wipe our hands of it."

Jeremy Moule is a deputy editor with WXXI News. He also covers Monroe County.