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Press Release

Duluth, Minn. - Six months after Heidi Bauman dipped her first water quality sampling jar arm-length into Lake Superior, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency's (MPCA) Beach Program Coordinator says she is surprised at the number of "no water contact" advisories she had to post at public swimming beaches and boat-access points due to E. coli and fecal coliform bacteria-contaminated water.

"When we started the beach water monitoring program last May, we thought we'd have a four-month season and few problems due to Lake Superior's cold, clear water. Unfortunately for swimmers and others using public access sites between Duluth and Grand Marais, high bacteria counts at 10 of our 35 monitoring sites opened our eyes to a more serious water-quality problem. Fortunately, the other 25 sites didn't have any problems all summer."

As a result, higher-than-allowable levels of E. coli and fecal coliform bacteria, originating in humans, geese, seagulls and other warm blooded animals, made their way into public beaches and adjacent waterbodies where swimmers and boat enthusiasts congregate during the summer. At high levels, these bacteria can cause nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, fever, headache and diarrhea. Other illnesses associated with swimming in such waters include eye, ear, nose
and throat infections.

According to the Minnesota Department of Health, no water contact related health problems were reported but that does not mean that there were no illnesses. People reporting similar symptoms are often assumed to have food-borne causes and are investigated accordingly. The MDH requests people who have had water contact and become ill to report their condition to their county health department. The county's public health staff are required to report such illnesses to their state counterpart for further investigation. Timely reports may also prevent others from becoming ill from the same contaminated site.

Designed to help keep beachgoers and boaters safe from contaminated water, the MPCA's federally-funded Beach Program selected 35 public beaches between West Duluth's Boy Scout Boat Landing and Paradise Beach northeast of Grand Marais. Regular testing resulted in 22 "no water contact" advisory postings covering 58 days at 10 sites. The longest posting was for 39 days at Duluth's New Duluth Boat Club / 14th Street Landing on Park Point.

Obvious contaminants such as geese and dog droppings and dirty diapers likely caused the high bacteria levels. Sewer system spills and overflows or warm, dark undisturbed water (typically found at the New Duluth Boat Club Landing) were also suspected contributors. "Our laboratory can measure only bacteria levels, not determine sources," Bauman says. "We won't know for certain what caused last year's beach advisories because grant restrictions prevent us from testing samples for DNA markers or track likely sources. Fortunately, other organizations are able to do this. The city of Duluth and the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District are investigating possible sources at the New Duluth Boat Club site."

One of the more evident observations from the first year of monitoring is that most advisories were posted in urbanized areas. This implies that human activities in the Lake Superior watershed do affect the water quality at its beaches. The MPCA's Beach Program will release a more detailed year-end report within the next several months.

During the summer, beachgoers were encouraged to help protect our ground and surface waters by properly disposing of pet waste and garbage, keeping diapered children out of the water (or dressing them in rubber pants), using natural lawn and garden fertilizers, maintaining septic systems, emptying marine and recreational boating waste into proper receptacles, and conserving water.

In addition to the city and the WLSSD, Beach Program partners include Cook, Lake, and St. Louis counties, the University of Minnesota's Biology Department, Recreational Sports Outdoor and Sea Grant Programs and Natural Resources Research Institute, Duluth Boat Club, Park Point Community Club, Clean Water Action, and the state's Departments of Health and Natural Resources Coastal Program. The group will meet during the winter to evaluate the program's first-year results and discuss next year's program goals, projects and expectations.

Currently, Minnesota does not require beach water testing. As a result, water sampling and announcements of unsafe swimming conditions are inconsistently issued. The federal Beach Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act, an amendment to the Clean Water Act, calls on Minnesota to monitor water quality at
public beaches and improve public communication about health risks at coastal beaches on Lake Superior.

For more information about the MPCA's Beach Program, including this year's sampling results, call Heidi Bauman, MPCA Beach Program Coordinator, at (218) 723-4953 or (800) 657-3864, or visit its Web site at

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