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Great Lakes Article:

Racine closes its beaches
By David Steinkraus
The Journal Times
Published August 6th, 2004

The number of beach closings nationwide increased 51 percent from 2002 to 2003, and that illustrates the need for more action on improving water quality, says a report released Thursday by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

On the same day, Racine closed its beaches for the first time this summer.

There were at least 18,284 days of closings or advisories in 2003, 64 extended closings of seven to 13 consecutive weeks, and 60 permanent closings of more than 13 consecutive weeks, the NRDC report says. Now in its 14th year, the report was based on information compiled by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and supplemental information requested from states.

Great Lakes states showed a similar increase in closings and advisories - from 1,405 days in 2002 to 1,854 in 2003. In Wisconsin, the number increased from 468 days to 738, the report said. On Thursday morning, the city closed its Lake Michigan beaches because bacteria concentrations were 17 to 24 times higher than established limits, said Marcia Fernholz, the city's director of environmental health. Previously this summer the city has issued only advisories, which signify an increased risk of illness but which don't forbid people from swimming.

"But we had 1.34 inches of rain and 3-foot waves. And the water was very turbid," Fernholz said.

According to records compiled by the city Health Department, Racine's Lake Michigan beaches were closed a total of 47 days in 2002 and 57 days in 2003. Each separate beach closure counts as one day, so if both beaches are closed on the same day, that counts as two days of closings.

This summer, advisories have been posted on nine days for North Beach and seven days for Zoo Beach.

Numbers from last year and this year are not completely comparable, however, because the city has changed its rules for posting beaches. Warnings are no longer automatically issued for two consecutive days, so that automatically reduces the number of warnings this year.

Looking for problems Wisconsin tested 97 percent of its beaches in 2003, according to the NRDC report. Of its neighbors on the Great Lakes, Minnesota tests 100 percent, Illinois tests 78 percent, Indiana tests 83 percent, and Michigan tests 61 percent.

The primary cause of the increased number of advisories in the Great Lakes, and in the rest of the nation, was a large increase in the number of beaches being monitored and adoption of new standards for measuring bacterial contamination, the NRDC report said.

In a press release, the Sierra Club, Friends of Milwaukee's Rivers, and the Lake Michigan Federation used the occasion of the report's issuance to criticize the lack of knowledge about the causes of beach water contamination and the lack of action on cleaning up near shore waters.

"MMSD and other agencies would like the public to believe that (beaches) are closed only because of gulls. We know from this summer in Milwaukee and beyond that sewage overflows also put public health and water quality at risk," Cameron Davis, executive director of the Lake Michigan Federation, said in the press release.

Earlier this week, the state Department of Natural Resources requested that the Department of Justice sue the Metropolitan Milwaukee Sewerage District Milwaukee for violating pollution rules and dumping billions of gallons of sewage into Lake Michigan this spring when heavy rains overloaded the system. Davis said the state and federal governments have not enforced laws that could have prevented that.

In Racine the wastewater utility isn't in trouble with the state, and it hasn't had any system overflows since May, said Tom Bunker, general manager of the utility. In the spring, 1.2 million gallons of wastewater were released without treatment. The utility's project to increase its sewage capacity already shows in those overflows because they were localized problems and not systemic, Bunker said.

"The beach closings thing is a tough issue, though," he said. Wastewater plants have problems following rains, but the weather has been relatively dry of late, with no overflows, yet beaches have been posted. That points to sources of contamination other than wastewater plants, he said.

The NRDC report calls for better notice to the public about water quality problems, for more research, for stronger pollution rules and enforcement of those rules, and for better treatment of sewage.

People can also have a direct effect, the report says, by redirecting storm water into gardens or yards instead of storm sewers, picking up animal waste, and maintaining septic systems.

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