This past summer brought another season of beach closings around the Great Lakes. Officials close some beaches several times each summer because of high E. coli bacteria counts. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports… while the public is growing more concerned, at least one researcher says the beach closings might be pointless:
This past summer was another season of beach closings around the Great
Lakes. Officials close some beaches several times each summer because of
high e-coli bacteria counts. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester
Graham reports… while the public is growing more concerned… at least
one researcher says the beach closings might be pointless.
(open w/ beach sounds)
It’s a breezy, sunny day. People at this beach on Lake Michigan are trying
to slip in one more day of sun and swimming before it gets too cold. As they
hurry to the water’s edge, many of the visitors don’t seem to notice the
two bulletin boards they pass. They explain that bacteria levels on this beach
are sometimes too high for safe swimming.
About six times a year the Indiana Dunes State Beach here near Michigan
City, Indiana is closed because of high counts of e-coli bacteria. The
bacteria sometimes make swimmers sick. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting,
and fevers. The bacteria can cause rashes and infections. The beaches are
closed as a precaution when the e-coli levels are found to be high. But… in
reality closing the beaches might do no good at all.
That’s because it takes 24-hours to incubate test samples taken from the
water. So, that means the beach could be closed today because of
yesterday’s samples. Even though today the problem is past.
Doug Wickersham is the property manager of Indiana Dunes State Park. He’s
not happy with the 24 hour delay in testing for e-coli.
“No, it’s not a perfect system, but it’s the best we got at this
point, 24 hours. And it is frustrating ’cause you know when you are closed
the water may actually be clean and fine at that time. What you’re actually
testing is the day before and it may have been bad and you may have been
Where Great Lakes beaches are tested… they’re tested using this method.
One scientist who’s researching e-coli on Great Lakes beaches says the 24-
hour test is just about useless.
“That’s absolutely correct. We don’t have an adequate— in my
opinion, do not have an adequate way of warning visitors.”
That’s Richard Whitman. He’s station chief at the US Geological Survey’s
Lake Michigan Ecological Research Station. He says not only is there no
quick way to test for e-coli bacteria. But he says it’s probably the wrong
thing to use to try to gauge water quality.
“We are closing beaches using the wrong tool to close beaches.
E-coli is probably very poorly suited as a good indicator of water quality.
The more we learn about it, the less confidence I personally have in its
ability to predict the quality of the water that we’re swimming in.”
The problem is one of cost. For years, water officials have tested for
e-coli, not so much because it might make people sick, but because the test
was cheap, and it was an indicator of potentially much bigger problems. It
was thought that e-coli was found primarily in human waste. So, if e-coli
were present, officials felt confident that sewage would be nearby as
well. Sewage can contain pathogens potentially much more harmful than
But.. after many years of testing, the researchers are finding that e-coli
is present in much more than just human waste. In fact, e-coli are a natural
phenomenon. Researchers have found feces from mice, rats, and other
also contain the bacteria. So, when the rain washes over the land, it picks
up those bacteria and carries them to the lake.
“The sand harbors e-coli naturally and then there’s a lot of bird
feces, sea gulls and sometimes geese, depending on where you’re talking
about, that can get re-suspended and cause beach closures.”
That means even when the great lakes were pristine, there were
probably background levels of e-coli bacteria in the water.
Whitman says it might be better to test for other bacteria, or chemicals,
or pathogens that scientist know are unique to sewage, but those tests are
much more expensive than testing for e-coli and often take just as long.
So for now, the beaches still have to close when the e-coli count exceeds
the EPA standards. To do that job better, researchers such as Whitman
are trying to put together predictability models. In other words, they’re
trying to forecast when e-coli will be high so the beaches are closed when
there’s actually a risk, not the day after.
Meanwhile, most swimmers here at Indiana Dunes State Beach seem to be
unaware of the problem.
Matt Swartz has brought his family to the beach. His two boys are
splashing in the water and playing in the sand. Swartz says he didn’t read
the bulletin boards outlining the e-coli risks. He was surprised to hear
about them, but not alarmed.
“I don’t know; I just think sometimes you take thinks for granted and
you just think everything’s safe. You know, it looks so nice and you just go
ahead and not worry about the actual things that are wrong with what’s
Swimming in the Great Lakes is always a risk, although a slight one,
because of e-coli. But the Swartz family won’t know whether they were at
a greater risk from high e-coli counts, until the test results return
sometime the day after their visit.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.