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Great Lakes Article:

Editorial: 'Closed beach' signs don't do the job
Published June 4, 2005

Our position: The inadequacy of beach closings and swimming advisories shows the need to stop pollution at its source.

As Dale Engquist, superintendent of Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, once noted, if beach closing signs accurately reflected the situation, they would read: "The beach is closed today. We don't know if it needs to be. We'll be able to tell you that tomorrow. If you swam here yesterday, we're sorry but you swam in water with E. coli levels above the EPA standards."

Problems with using E. coli bacteria levels to determine when beaches should be closed have led state environmental regulators to give local officials flexibility in closing beaches or issuing advisories along Lake Michigan.

Their reasoning is based on an analysis titled "Thinking Differently about E. Coli," by Wendy Smith, education coordinator at the Great Lakes Research and Education Center. She argues that using E. coli to gauge contamination can be inaccurate.

The main problem is that it takes 16 to 24 hours to analyze water samples, while water conditions change rapidly in the lake. Thus swimmers may be exposed to fecal matter long before the water is sampled and results emerge. But by the time testing reveals a problem, water at the beach may be safe for swimming. And since contamination often lingers in the sand, Smith argues, some beach closings may actually force people out of clean water onto contaminated beaches.

The Indiana Department of Environmental Management maintains that local officials are in the best position to gauge pollution from antiquated sewer systems that spill more than 686 million gallons of sewage into Indiana's Lake Michigan tributaries -- usually after heavy rains.

As Smith and others suggest, the best solution is to clean up the sources of pollution. They include aging sewer systems, faulty septic systems, illegal discharges from boats and runoff from farm operations.

It's a big and complicated task. Yet it's one worth doing not just for the sake of swimmers, but also to protect one of the world's most valuable freshwater resources and one of Indiana's finest tourist attractions.

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