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Great Lakes Article:

Lake testing finds beach contamination
Maria Lockwood
The Superior Daily Telegram
07/18/03


One of the perks of living by Lake Superior is the ability to take a dip into its cool, clear waters. Now, however, swimmers are urged to watch for signs first.

New E. coli testing has shown that water along Lake Superiorís shores may not be as pristine as residents once believed. Since the pilot project began in May, 10 beaches in Douglas County have been closed due to unsafe levels of E. coli bacteria.

Last week, the Associated Press reported that Wisconsin Point Beach 2 was closed. That affects the stretch of beach between the Wisconsin Point peninsula (beach 3) and the area by Dutchmanís Creek (beach 1).

According to the most recent data from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Wisconsin Point Beach 2 and the outer beach on Barkerís Island are closed.

In addition, advisories have been posted for Wisconsin Point 1 beach, the inner beach at Barkerís Island and Allouez Bay Beach 3 (across the point from the lighthouse). But those designations can change frequently due to retesting.

How can residents tell if it is not safe to swim?

"Youíll see a big red stop sign," said Toni Glymph, toxicologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. "Everybody should take that sign seriously."

Testing takes place at 13 beaches in Douglas County through the pilot program, funded with federal EPA dollars. Advisory signs are posted if a water sample shows higher than acceptable levels of E. coli. Samples with more than three times the acceptable level trigger a beach closing. Daily retesting takes place until two tests in a row come back at acceptable levels.

Glymph cautioned that this is the first year of testing. These levels could be normal, and are not necessarily a danger.

The test tracks levels of E. coli bacteria. The strain tracked is not harmful, said Glymph, but it is an indicator that there is fecal contamination. A high level is not a definite sign that there are pathogenic strains in the mix, but it sends up a warning flag.

"These are places people swim," said Vicki Drake, environmental health specialist with the Douglas County Department of Health and Human Services. "The object is, if people jump into the water they know what theyíre jumping into."

Since testing began, she has seen levels of the coliform bacteria ebb and flow along the Lake Superior shoreline.

Often, the culprit is rain.

After a big rainstorm, said Drake, E. coli levels tend to spike at a minimum of three beaches - one in the Allouez Bay, one along Wisconsin Point and one at Barkerís Island.

Glymph said that is natural.

"No matter how clean your water is, youíre going to get runoff," she said. "In general, the numbers are very low."

Finding the source of the contamination isnít the focus of this yearís testing. Results from this year will be used as a baseline for future work, which will include pinpointing sources.

"This is a pilot year," said Glymph. "Itís the first time weíve done anything of this magnitude. Weíre really getting the bugs out. We want feedback from the public."

Glymph suggested using a common-sense approach to swimming at local beaches.

"After a rainfall avoid the water for 24-48 hours," she said.

And watch the signs.

"If it says closed, donít go," said Drake. "If itís an advisory, think about it."

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