E. coli bacteria remains big problem along Lake Michigan
By Neil Rhines
Manitowoc Herald Times
TWO RIVERS - Waves of people find their way to the Lake
Michigan shoreline every year during the beach season
when, for about three weeks, the aquamarine waters appear
as inviting as the Mediterranean.
While Lake Michiganís cool temperatures have rebuffed
many would-be swimmers, this year carload upon carload
of visitors were turned away by bright red stop signs
indicating dangerous levels of E. coli bacteria.
The Manitowoc County Health Department, in conjunction
with the County Soil and Water Conservation Department,
Wisconsin Coastal Management, the Department of Natural
Resources and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
and area municipalities (just to name a few) want to find
out why there are so many beaches closings, and they want
to know how to fix the problem.
According to Guy Willman, superintendent at Point Beach
State Forest, one of the first questions people ask when
the temperature warms is "Can we swim?" Willmanís
frequent response this summer was not an automatic yes,
because the three distinct beach areas at Point Beach
were among the dirtiest in the county. Instead, Willman
said he would show the visitor a brochure explaining how
to keep their children safe, talk about possible causes
of the problem and hope parents didnít turn the car around
and go home.
"Itís hard for us to tell them anything," Willman
said. "They have to make that decision on their own."
The signs are simply advisory, and cannot legally prevent
anyone from entering the water.
The park camping lots were nearly packed between Memorial
Day and Labor Day, but daily park stickers - which would
have been purchased by people just coming for the sun,
sand and water - were down about 25 percent this year,
he said. These dips in revenue were minor compared to
According to Two Rivers Parks and Recreation Director
Rick Manchester, revenues from the concession stand at
Neshotah Park Beach were down about 50 percent this year.
Because the city of Two Rivers doesnít charge a user fee
for swimming at Neshotah, concession sales are the cityís
best way of determining how many people are coming to
the beach, Manchester said.
The decrease in sales is reflective of a decrease in
attendance, but it also correlates with the 23 out of
35 days in "the beach season" when Neshotah
was listed as Unsafe, Caution or Closed according to the
levels of E. coli found.
But not everyone puts as much stock in the warning signs
as those who stayed away from the sandy beaches at Neshotah
"I really question what testing is telling us concerning
the 24-hour lag time," said City Manager Greg Buckley
concerning the full day it takes from sample collection
to posted results.
By its very nature, Lake Michigan is a very dynamic body
"If a green sign is up, it simply means the water
was safe 24 hours ago," Buckley said.
The social and economic loss that comes from not having
a beach with a clean bill of health is certainly regrettable
and "we should all be good stewards of Lake Michigan,
but I donít know what we have accomplished besides giving
people something more to worry about," he said.
Buckley, for one, would not think twice to take his wife
and 10-year old daughter swimming, even though he does
respect the safe limits and certain precautions to take,
The cause or the solution
According to the County Health Department, samples are
taken at 12 county beaches from Hika Bay in Cleveland
to Point Beach north of Two Rivers. This is a drastic
increase from last season, when the only regularly tested
beaches were Red Arrow and Warm Waters in Manitowoc, and
one location at Point Beach State Forest.
According to Jim Blaha, director of the county Health
Department, since the county began its beach testing efforts
in 1995, the amount of money spent on the endeavor has
rapidly grown to reflect the growing awareness of an E.
coli problem. About $2,500 was spent all year in 2001;
the same amount was spent in August of this year, just
for lab work, Blaha said.
The county received a $10,000 grant for testing issued
through the DNR from the EPAís 2001 B.E.A.C.H. Act.
But Blaha and others realize that just saying the water
isnít safe 24 hours ago isnít enough. Issued from Wisconsin
Coastal Management, the county received a $25,000 grant
with a $10,000 match to conduct far more extensive testing,
in hopes of finding the source of the pollutants.
Consulting outside researchers, a team led by Dr. Sandra
McLellan of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Water
Institute drew samples from five county locations on Aug.
11. Using different testing methods like antibiotic sensitivity,
researchers hope to learn whether the E. coli is coming
from wildlife or from human or human-related sources.
Blaha said the county hopes to receive the data by this
winter so they have time to analyze and decide where to
"You have to crawl before you walk," he said.
If the problem stems from human sources, the county can
then deal with the problem; if the problem is related
to wildlife - like the large seagull populations - resolution
may be more difficult, Blaha said.
"Itís hard to put Huggies on a seagull," he