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DNR Presents Beach Testing Plan
Jessica La Plante
Green Bay News-Chronicle

Aside from casting a ballot on election day, citizens rarely get the chance to be part of the decision-making process when it comes to government spending.

But Wednesday night, a score of local residents gathered at the Central Brown County Library to help state officials decide how federal funds will be allocated to monitor beaches along the Lake Michigan and Green Bay coast.

During the four-hour open house, representatives from the state Department of Natural Resources unveiled a new plan for monitoring E. coli levels at public beaches throughout Wisconsin with the aid of local health departments. Beaches across the area were closed this summer when E. coli levels were too high for safe swimming.

The aim of the public hearing was to help DNR officials decide which coastal areas should receive priority funding under the new program, scheduled to take effect this summer.

The program's goal is "to identify all the beaches on the Great Lakes and categorize them as high, medium or low priority based on usage and the potential for contamination," said Toni Glymph, a toxicologist for the DNR. A second open house will be held today from 4:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Sturgeon Bay High School commons.

The DNR plan will meet the expectations of a new law passed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in October 2000. The federal law requires states to develop guidelines for local health agencies in monitoring the safety of recreational waters. To accomplish that, the DNR will receive $238,000 in annual grant money to distribute among local governments that voluntarily participate in the program.

During the public meeting, Glymph gave a short overview of the monitoring program, outlining how, when and where beach testing would occur.

Most notably, the new guidelines would prevent beaches from being prematurely closed because of inaccurate testing methods.

"In the past, people would just go out and take a sample in the middle (of the waters)," Glymph said. "Now we'll be doing cross sections ... because you can have one area that's really high, then go 2 feet away and find nothing."

The plan will regulate all aspects of the testing process, including collection methods and time limits for processing samples.

News of a more uniform testing system came as a relief to many citizens who attended the Wednesday night meeting, several of whom voiced concerns about how beach closings have affected the economy.

"I would like to have (contamination levels) be public knowledge, but at the same time not do it in a way that's all doom and gloom," said Jeanne Agneessens, a Green Bay business woman and Washington Island homeowner.

Agneessens said she would like to see the School House Beach on Washington Island be placed on the DNR's priority list.

Under the DNR plan, high-traffic areas such as the tourist beaches of Door County would be monitored on a daily basis, whereas lesser used beaches would be tested on a weekly or case-by-case basis.

"What we want to hear from the public is (whether) there's a beach that's used a lot," Glymph said. "If no one's using it, we don't want to put the funding there; we'd rather put the funding where people are using the beaches."

While some residents felt that Door County deserves the greatest attention, others were more concerned about the Green Bay coast.

Mary Ellen Ranney of Green Bay said she would like to see high-risk areas along both Brown and Door County monitored.

"I think they should do some of the testing in the boat dock areas, where the big yachts are," Ranney said, adding that additional testing should be done in areas where tidal patterns tend to trap contaminants.

Another resident anxious to see the shoreline of Green Bay more carefully watched is James Iverson of Luxemburg. Iverson, an environmental lab employee, said frequent monitoring would help public health officials identify sources of pollution.

"I think it's going to help give (counties) a good idea of where the sources are coming from," Iverson said.

If any theme emerged at the open house, it was a general desire to determine the cause of water contamination.

However, Glymph stressed to residents that locating the source of high bacteria counts is only a fringe benefit, and not the main focus of the monitoring program.

"The EPA funding is very specific to just monitoring and public notification," Glymph said. "But we hope that by taking some of the financial burden off local health departments, maybe they can use their funds to identify some sources (of contamination)."

To receive funding, the DNR must introduce a system for publicizing beach closings.

Among the communication methods proposed by the DNR were an expanded Web site, a telephone hotline and better marked signage at closed beaches.

Rather than simply closing down any beach that shows a trace of bacteria, the DNR plan would distinguish between degrees of contamination, issuing health advisories in areas with lesser E. coli counts while closing down beaches that present a real health concern.

Glymph said the DNR will use the feedback from the open houses to revise its beach monitoring plan, which must be submitted to the EPA by March. After the plan is finalized, the DNR will hold another open hearing session to solicit public input.

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