Ottawa County upgrades
bacteria watch at beaches
June 1, 2002
By John Tunison
The Grand Rapids Press
Ottawa County's public
beaches along the Lake Michigan shoreline have never been
hot spots for bacteria.
But Jim Szejda is prepared
if the rolling waves bring microscopic trouble.
Ottawa County is beefing
up its beach monitoring program this summer to provide
faster and more reliable water testing at the six Lake
Michigan beaches and seven inland swimming sites under
the county's watch.
"We don't suspect there
is going to be a problem," said Szejda, director of Ottawa
County's Environmental Health Department. "But we do want
to monitor because we have a lot of tourists."
The changes in the county's
long-running testing program come as environmentalists
and some state legislators are pushing for to test for
E. coli. State Rep. Patty Birkholz, R-Saugatuck Township,
has sponsored a bill that would require owners of public
beaches to install signs stating whether they test and,
if they do, to post the results at a state Web site.
Her bill passed the
state House a week ago and was in the Senate's Natural
Resources and Environmental Affairs Committee today. It
could go to the Senate floor later this week.
A temporary "no swimming"
advisory issued last July at Saugatuck's Oval Beach because
of floating garbage, followed by a one-day advisory in
early August at three Allegan County beaches, prompted
the bill. Allegan County's fledgling testing program didn't
start until after the Oval Beach incident.
"People were furious.
They were calling me up about it, mostly parents and grandparents,"
Birkholz said. "They assumed all along the beaches were
Ottawa County has tested
beaches for many years, but the program was limited to
collecting one sample per week from each location. This
year, a worker will collect three water samples from each
beach to meet Environmental Protection Agency guidelines.
Szejda said the expanded
sampling, which began Tuesday, will provide greater reliability
and guard against the possibility of getting a bad reading
because of isolated waterfowl feces.
Testing results should
come in much faster this year, as well. In the past, samples
were mailed to a Kent County laboratory in a process that
took up to a week to get results. In some cases, the bacteria
problem had subsided before sanitarians even knew there
Now, samples will be
delivered in person to the lab and the results will be
faxed to the health department. Results could be available
in as little as 48 hours.
"We'll know it a lot
sooner if there is a problem," Szejda said.
Last year, Ottawa County's
only swimming advisory came in August at Holland Township's
Dunton Park. Health department officials suspected an
excess of waterfowl and seagull droppings caused the problem.
The advisory lasted about a week.
A common bacteria, E.
coli can cause illness in people with weak or immature
immune systems, typically children or the elderly. Swimming
advisories are usually issued when levels exceed 300 colonies
per 100 milliliters of water.
The Dunton Park samples
came back at about 2,400 colonies last year.
Kent County for 13 years
has tested various beaches between Memorial Day and Labor
Day. They include Long, Myers, Wabasis, Reeds, Lincoln,
Versluis and Scalley lakes.
Paul Burch, a sanitarian
specialist with the Kent County Environmental Health Department,
said workers four years ago began following the EPA's
guideline of collecting three samples per beach.
Last year, Kent County
issued advisories that lasted three days or less at Scalley
Lake in June and Lincoln Lake in August because of swan
droppings. The testing program will continue this year
"Last year, we had a
pretty good record," Burch said.
In West Michigan, Montcalm
and Ionia counties have no testing program. The Barry-Eaton
County Environmental Health division received a $5,000
grant to continue a 1-year-old program to test five beaches,
including three at Gun Lake.
A multi-county health
department that covers Newaygo County received an $18,000
grant this year to monitor 18 beaches in the lakeshore
counties of Oceana, Mason and Manistee, but will not be
testing in Newaygo County.
On the other side of
Lake Michigan, Illinois lawmakers want federal environmental
officials to stop Milwaukee from dumping sewage into Lake
Michigan. The legislators say Milwaukee's dumpings are
to blame for a dramatic increase in beach closings in
Illinois over the past eight years.