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
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.