Sewage Overflow Closes
Several State Beaches
Michigan works to stem pollution that
closes swim spots
By MALCOLM JOHNSON
Associated Press Writer
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
"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
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
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.
is reopened when bacteria levels fall back to acceptable
of a lake may be contaminated. Homeowners who swim
near their house should periodically take lake samples.
water away from shore is generally safer.
Source: Michigan Department of Environmental
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
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