When the rains fall in Erie County, the water runs downhill into Sandusky Bay and into Lake Erie.
For years, the Erie County Health Department has been taking water samples at local beaches, issuing advisories on which beaches to avoid because of bacterial contamination.
Now the health department has taken the next step -- testing upstream to find the sources of contamination polluting area beaches.
Last week, health department workers began taking samples in the Old Woman Creek and Huron River watersheds, searching for clues. It's a long-term investigation not expected to conclude until October 2009.
The study is designed to test the theory that contamination of Lake Erie's beaches is largely caused by the private sewage systems used by homes in areas such as Berlin Heights, Milan Township and Huron Township, said Bob England, the health department's director of environmental services.
It's possible the study will show that's not the case and most of the contamination comes from runoff during storms, runoff from farms or some other cause, England said.
Phase One of the study will consist of upstream water sampling in locations such as Berlin Heights, Berlin Township, Milan Township and Huron Township. It began at the mouth of Old Woman Creek and is moving upstream. Beach samplings will also be used in the study.
An airplane will fly over the Old Woman Creek and Huron River watersheds in the late fall or early spring, when there isn't much vegetation. Aerial infrared photographs will be snapped to detect pollution in the water produced by sewage.
"We are looking for heat signatures, which could be the indicator of a discharging system," he said.
Sewage from toilets produces such a signature, which should show up in photographs.
"It will create a plume in a body of water that will spread out," England said.
The second phase will be hiring a scientist to determine if there are any connections between the pollution and algae blooms in Lake Erie.
"Is there a relationship that can be directly linked with something that occurred upstream?" England questioned.
The third phase will be hiring an engineering firm to make suggestions for dealing with any problem that has been identified. Local communities can then use those suggestions to seek grant money for construction projects, England suggested.
"As in many research projects, it's the results and conclusions you draw from this project that direct future work," he said.
Jack Meyers, Erie County's sanitary engineer, said the Department of Environmental Services is helping with the health department investigation because it could zero in on where the county should spend money to deal with water pollution problems.
"It will help us prioritize," he said.
If the study shows private sewage systems in Berlin Heights are contributing to water pollution, the county could consider extending sewer lines to the area, Meyers said. Other possible solutions might include putting in a local sewer system to serve the area or improving the efficiency of the private sewage systems serving each house.
"We wouldn't just extend sewers without doing a study," he said.
The health department study is funded by a $42,957 Coastal Management Assistance Grant from the state that's being combined with $45,000 from a group of local agencies and governments that have formed a partnership with the health department: the City of Huron, the Village of Berlin Heights, Erie County's Department of Environmental Services, the Erie Regional Planning Commission, Friends of Old Woman Creek and Erie Soil and Water Conservation District.