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Great Lakes Article:

DNR gears up to battle beach bacteria
Paul Brinkmann
Green Bay Press Gazette
01/14/2003

Unless you’re a polar bear, swimming and beach contamination probably rank low among this week’s priorities.

Gone are the daily headlines of last summer carrying news about beach-related illnesses and a record number of beach closures because of high counts of E. coli bacteria in the water in Northeastern Wisconsin.

Swimmers like Lee Macrander of High Cliff wonder what happened to all the fuss. She owns property near Frank Murphy Park in Egg Harbor, one of 11 Door County beach areas hit by the problem last summer.

“We all leave the beaches and you never hear more about it,” Macrander said. “We never really did hear definitively what was causing this (water contamination).”

Away from the spotlight, however, local and state officials are working on the problem. They’ve prepared a battle plan for the coming summer season to monitor bacteria, decide when to close a beach and choose methods for notifying the public.

On Wednesday and Thursday, the state Department of Natural Resources will hold meetings in Green Bay and Sturgeon Bay asking for the public’s advice on a new statewide beach-monitoring policy.

The summer of 2002 marked the first time beach closures hit Door County’s many lakeshore parks. Previously, the county did little monitoring, but an outbreak of more than 60 illnesses at Peninsula State Park in July jump-started a local program.

The problem, once confined largely to Racine, Milwaukee and Madison beaches, is now a statewide crisis that could affect tourism.

This winter the DNR has drafted a comprehensive new testing strategy. It will apply to all counties with beaches on the Great Lakes.

The agency has compiled a list of hundreds of public access points on Lake Michigan and Green Bay — 43 are in Door County.

The “beaches” vary from simple boat ramps to sand beaches with lifeguards.

Without making any assumptions, the agency wants to know:

• Which beaches are busiest and most important to the public?

• What kind of information does the public want about bacteria and water contamination at beaches?

• How should the public be notified when a beach is closed?

DNR officials from the Bureau of Watershed Management will attend the meetings to describe the proposals. They will encourage written or oral comments.

For example, the beach at Whitefish Dunes State Park has never been classified as a swimming beach despite thousands of visitors each year. The state wants to know if the public wishes water at the beach to be tested for bacteria and how often testing should occur.

Funding requirements

The state will use the public input to place requirements on grant money. The agency has $238,000 to distribute this year from the federal BEACH Act of 2000.

Door County has requested a major chunk of that money: $79,000.

Like last year, beach advisories would be issued if E. coli levels reach the federal limit — 235 colony-forming units per 10 milliliters of water. Anything above that is believed to place swimmers at risk for bacteria-borne illnesses.

The state’s new protocol, however, also suggests that public beaches might not be closed completely until the level reaches 1,000 colonies. Between 235 and 1,000 colonies, swimmers would hit the water at their own risk.

Rhonda Kolberg, Door County Public Health Department director, said she would rather keep things simple and close beaches entirely once the federal limit of 235 is reached, in the interest of public safety.

Bacteria source not studied

The DNR meetings skip over a major issue — the source of bacteria.

Most of the federal money is only for measuring how many bacteria exist in the water at each beach.

Toni Glymph, state toxicologist for the DNR Bureau of Watershed Management, is coordinating the state’s approach. She said accurate, frequent testing could help to determine sources. Up until July 2002, little information about local bacteria conditions exists.

For example, personnel taking water samples likely will note other factors such as wind direction, rainfall, temperature and presence of sea gulls or other shorebirds. That information can help paint a picture of how and when bacteria grow.

“This testing and notification plan is a start. People need to be aware of risks and make informed choices,” Glymph said.

Some money left over from last year’s federal program may be used to track sources, primarily whether the bacteria come from animal or human waste, Glymph said. Widely suspected sources of bacteria include sewage overflows, leaking septic systems, shorebirds, boating waste and surface runoff.

Meanwhile in Door County, Kolberg has submitted a $79,000 plan to Glymph’s office for approval once the protocol is complete.

Door County prepares

The county’s plan relies heavily on student labor from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh to take water samples and analyze them daily. Students would work at public labs in the sewage-treatment plants for Ephraim and Sturgeon Bay.

Kolberg, working with the university, proposes paying four students $10 an hour and a supervising student $12 an hour through the summer months for a total of $35,800. They would all be graduate students in microbiology. Last year, the county’s limited staff had to abandon other duties to pursue water sampling.

Other expenses include $15,000 for lab equipment, $7,500 for office equipment and $5,000 for mileage.

“I guess it would be a great summer job for a student in this field,” Kolberg said.

She proposes testing water at the busiest beaches every day. Beaches with less use would be tested only weekly unless a problem emerged. The university offered to provide some testing to determine the source of bacteria.

Staying informed

Macrander hopes the new program will help track the source. That’s her main worry. She said she joins her husband, three children and dog at the beach frequently.

“If they really believe there are multiple sources, I hope they start making sure they are controlling the sources they can control, like sewage,” Macrander said. “Otherwise I think the TV news and the newspapers are a good way to get the word out.”

Beaches on the Green Bay side of Door County were hit hardest last year.

Mary Junion, who lives near Whitefish Dunes on Lake Michigan, said she thinks the county and state should concentrate efforts on Green Bay.

“Testing every day may be overkill unless there’s a problem,” Junion said.

Even Marcella Desotelle, who also lives near Frank Murphy Park, believes the state must identify a source.

“I personally don’t swim, but I guess the beaches are very important to the hotels and businesses around here,” she said.

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