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Great Lakes Article:

Beach cleanup continues
E. coli bacteria remains big problem along Lake Michigan
By Neil Rhines
Manitowoc Herald Times
09/28/03


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 some.

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 this summer.

"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 of water.

"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, he said.

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 go next.

"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 said.

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