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Great Lakes Article:

E. coli warnings at beaches to change
Some will advise, not ban, swimmers when bacteria counts are high
South Bend Tribune
Published June 1, 2005


GARY (AP) -- Managers of Indiana beaches along Lake Michigan will take different approaches to high E. coli bacteria counts resulting from testing this summer, with some choosing only to advise swimmers instead of barring them from the water.

The varying responses reflect different attitudes toward a commonly used test for the bacteria that indicates the possible presence of sewage in the water, but does not prove it.

Water conditions can change drastically between the time a sample for the test is taken and when the results come back nearly a day later. Additional tests last year showed the water actually was safe 85 percent of the time when test results came back showing bacterial levels the day before that exceeded federal standards.

As a result, beaches at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, such as West Beach in Portage, will issue advisories when tests this year show high readings. At other beaches, such as Michigan City's Washington Park or Gary's Marquette Park, similar test results likely will result in closing the beach to swimmers.

Dale Engquist, the national lakeshore's superintendent, said relying on the bacteria test alone is a disservice to the public.

When the park receives a high reading on its once-weekly E. coli test, it will tell beach visitors of the result, but will not prohibit them from entering the water.

The Indiana Department of Environmental Management until a few weeks ago required beach managers to prohibit swimming after a high E. coli reading. On May 3, it announced it would allow local agencies to make beach-closing decisions on their own. The state policy does not apply to the national lakeshore.

One environmentalist, Executive Director Tom Anderson of the Save the Dunes Council, said the E. coli test still is recommended by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for determining if inland water is safe for swimming.

"The new policy seems a step backward," Anderson said. "If we're going to err, we need to err on the side of caution."

However, Wendy Smith, education coordinator of the national lakeshore's Great Lakes Research and Education Center, said heavy rains are a better indicator of potential lake water contamination. Heavy rains can make sewage treatment plants send raw sewage into streams feeding into the lake.

"Generally speaking, if there hasn't been a heavy rain, you can feel quite confident that Lake Michigan's waters are clean enough for you to swim in," Smith wrote in a recently published article.

Indiana Dunes State Park, which is separate from the national lakeshore, also has a new policy this year.

The state park will issue an advisory after one high E. coli reading. If the next day's reading also is over the EPA's threshold, it will close the beach for swimming.

The park's managers also could close swimming before getting a test result if they notice environmental conditions -- such as heavy rain, sewage plant overflows and high waves -- that historically have resulted in high E. coli readings.

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