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Great Lakes Article:

Sewage Overflow Closes Several State Beaches

Michigan works to stem pollution that closes swim spots

By MALCOLM JOHNSON
Associated Press Writer
07/07/2002

LANSING -- While there is no promise that sewage discharges or other water pollution won't prompt "No Swimming" signs at popular beaches this summer, state and local officials say local governments are tackling the problem with increasing success.

"A lot of activity is being done to eliminate illegal sources of (sewage) discharges," said Elwin Coll, director of environmental health services for the Macomb County Health Department, which oversees four beaches on Lake St. Clair.

The county as of Friday has had four beach closures this year. "The general trend has been down," he said. "In many areas the water quality has improved."

Shannon Briggs, a toxicologist in the Surface Water Division of the state Department of Environmental Quality, agrees with Coll that things are getting better.

"Overall, we're lucky in Michigan," she said. "Our beaches are doing pretty well."

She and other experts said beach closings generally can be blamed on water pollution caused by storm water runoff, sanitary sewer flooding caused by heavy rains, faulty septic systems, bird and animal droppings, and human "accidents" at bathing beaches.

"Each beach has its own characteristics," Briggs said. "Lake St. Clair is unique because it has a large population on its shores. ... There's a human impact."

In southwestern Michigan there have been recent closings at Warren Dunes State Park and other beaches due to high E. coli levels.

Although beach closings are a local issue, the Michigan Legislature has taken two steps recently to make it easier to keep beaches clean and open.

One was passage of a bond proposal that will let Michigan voters decide on the November ballot if they want the state to borrow $1 billion to help fix Michigan's aging sewer systems and improve water quality.

"The bond proposal on the November ballot is the single most important thing people can do to protect water quality," said state Sen. Ken Sikkema, a Wyoming Republican who sponsored the proposal.

A look at beach closings

Beach-monitoring procedures in Michigan:

A beach is closed if bacteria levels in three samples taken by county health departments exceed state limits, either for a single day or a 30-day average.

  • A beach is reopened when bacteria levels fall back to acceptable levels.
  • Only part of a lake may be contaminated. Homeowners who swim near their house should periodically take lake samples.
  • Deeper water away from shore is generally safer.

    Source: Michigan Department of Environmental Quality

  • Beach closings are "a very big problem all over the state," he said. "I think things are getting worse."

    Dan Farough, political director for the Michigan branch of the Sierra Club, agreed the bond issue -- if passed -- should help avoid beach closings.

    "The thing you want to look at the most is the relationship between our outdated sewage infrastructure and beach closings," he said. He noted that Lake St. Clair is a perfect example of how sewage overflows can pollute rivers and end up closing beaches when the pollution reaches lakes.

    The second step the Legislature has taken is a bill, sent to Gov. John Engler last week, to require local officials to post signs indicating whether a beach's water was tested and what the results were.

    "It's a public health issue; people need to know if the water they're going to swim in is clean or not," said state Rep. Patricia Birkholz, the Saugatuck Republican who sponsored the bill.

    "People are upset" if they find out the water is not tested regularly, she said. "They are just furious."

    Coll agrees that homeowners and would-be swimmers are keenly interested in whether the water is clean. Exposure to high levels of the bacteria can cause skin rashes, intestinal problems or diarrhea.

    "We get a fair amount of questions," he said. "There is a lot of interest in the issue."

    Better technology may help health officials be more precise about when beach closings are needed.

    Scientists have developed a nearly real-time method to predict when bacteria levels in Lake Michigan are too high, taking into account recent rainfall, wind, lake levels, air and water temperatures and sunshine to forecast E. coli bacteria levels within three hours.

    And a consortium of universities, including Michigan, Eastern Michigan, Oakland University and Wayne State, has been working on technology that will enable scientists to detect harmful pollution levels using sophisticated marine radar and hand-held water monitoring systems.

    The new system would give health officials bacteria readings in minutes. Now, health officials test water samples with a process that takes 18 hours and can take up to 48 hours, leading to beach closures based on information that is days old.

    A bipartisan group of state legislators and local officials lobbied for the $2.5 million in state funds needed to get the faster monitoring system for the Lake St. Clair watershed.

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