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Great Lakes Article:

E. coli alert at Warren Dunes

Red flag signals high bacteria at beach

Southbend Tribune

SAWYER -- Jack Hott had trekked over from Detroit with his family to spend a week camping at Warren Dunes State Park.

And he is a little miffed that Warren Dunes and Berrien County authorities didn't better publicize a no-swimming advisory issued due to high levels of E. coli bacteria.

"You're paying $20 a day to come on over ... and they don't even tell you," Hott said Monday.

With a red flag up, people tend to think of high waves. But high waves weren't the reason Warren Dunes officials put up a red flag on Thursday.

Eleven-year-old Duane Vernier, a grandson of Hott's from Detroit, said he had gone swimming Thursday and Friday despite seeing the red flag. But he hasn't gone back in the water since learning that the flag was actually warning about bacteria levels.

Hott, Duane and others have been cautioning people to stay out of the water because of harmful bacteria levels, saying that some people have been going in the water because they think the flag just signals rough water.

On Monday, Lake Michigan was placid. And though E. coli counts were better Monday than they had been since Thursday, the waters at Warren Dunes State Park were kept off-limits to swimmers.

David Marsh, acting park supervisor, said a weekly test by the Berrien County Health Department last week found a high level of E. coli in the waters of Lake Michigan.

Because of the test results, the park put up a red flag and a sign advising that people should not swim in Lake Michigan at the Warren Dunes beach. Another nearby beach has also been cited for high bacteria levels, according to Hott.

One visitor to the park on Sunday said park employees told her and her family not to touch the water.

Park officials, however, did not say why they shouldn't touch the water, the visitor said.

Marsh did not know the E. coli count at the park. A spokeswoman for the Berrien County Health Department said the employee with the Warren Dunes statistics was not in the office Monday afternoon.

Marsh said the E. coli count has been dropping since Thursday and that park workers were notified Monday afternoon that half the beach was declared safe. But the park is going to keep the red flag up and the warning about the E. coli levels posted until the entire quarter-mile swimming area reaches acceptable E. coli levels, Marsh said.

Total body contact recreation is allowed in state waters that contain no more than 130 Escherichia coli per 100 milliliters in a 30-day "geometric mean," according to the state Department of Environmental Quality. At no time should the count reach more than 300 E. coli per 100 milliliters for full body contact recreation.

Swallowing bacteria-infested water would most likely bring sickness such as diarrhea or stomachache, but not death, Berrien County Health Department officials have said.

Marsh guessed the Warren Dunes problem was caused by heavy showers this season.

"We've had a lot of rain this year and have probably had a lot of runoff from farmers' fields," he said.

Marsh, who has been with the park since 1986, said the water has never been off-limits because of E. coli during his tenure. And another employee who has been at Warren Dunes since the 1970s has said the same thing. Both believe the waters have never been closed for E. coli in the park's history.

High levels of E. coli bacteria have forced the closure of Lake Michigan beaches at Indiana Dunes State Park and Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore before.

Officials will reopen beaches for swimming once bacteria levels fall to what is considered safe.

E. coli is a usually harmless bacteria found in the intestines of mammals. But some strains can travel in water and cause illness or death for children, the elderly and those with weakened immune systems.

Warren Dunes has three miles of beach in its 2,000 acres near Sawyer.

But with the recent cool weather, there hasn't been a big demand for swimming anyway, Marsh said.

The water temperature Monday morning was 63 degrees, about 6 degrees below its normal level.

"It's a good thing it's happened when it has," Marsh said.

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