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Great Lakes Article:

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 being tested."

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 was one.

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 without changes.

"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.

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