Beaches to be tested more often
State plan calls for better monitoring
of water quality
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Beginning this summer, water quality at 170 beaches on
Lake Michigan and Lake Superior will be tested for disease-causing
organisms more frequently than ever before, under a plan
to be announced at the end of the month.
From Racine to Door County to Bayfield, local public
health officials will be offered federal funds to encourage
them both to expand testing of the waters and to alert
the public to possible contamination at popular swimming
areas, said Toni Glymph, an environmental toxicologist
with the state Department of Natural Resources in Madison.
"People need to know the risks of going into the water,"
Glymph said. "But a lot of beaches haven't been monitored
in the past. Monitoring was done at the main Door County
beaches in 2002 only after an outbreak of illnesses in
In 2002, more of Wisconsin's Lake Michigan beaches were
closed more frequently than in the past. But researchers
still have little insight into the sources of the unexpectedly
High levels of E. coli bacteria in water prompted warning
signs to be posted a record number of times at three Milwaukee
beaches - 50 days at South Shore out of the 65-day season,
21 days at Bradford and 23 days at McKinley. Signs advising
swimmers not to go into the water were put up on 41 days
at Klode beach in Whitefish Bay.
For that reason, Glymph said she was not surprised that
residents preferred to talk about possible sources, rather
than the monitoring plan, at recent meetings held at Racine,
Milwaukee, Green Bay and Sturgeon Bay.
But help is on the way.
New study of contaminants
Research scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
are beginning a groundbreaking study that will provide
answers to the persistent question: where did the contaminants
The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District has awarded
a $772,000 grant to the Wisconsin Aquatic Technology and
Environmental Research Institute for a three-part study
of water quality in the lower Milwaukee River and harbor.
First, scientists at the research center, more commonly
known as the Great Lakes WATER Institute, will show where
the bacteria come from "other than the obvious sewer overflows,"
said Chris Magruder, MMSD community environmental liaison.
Second, the scientists, in cooperation with engineers
from MMSD and consulting firms, will track the spread
of bacteria out of the confluence of the Milwaukee, Menomonee
and Kinnickinnic rivers and into Lake Michigan. "This
will show us how they move from the rivers to the harbor
and shoreline," Magruder said.
Finally, the study will observe the fate of bacteria
in the harbor and in water along the shoreline.
The study also should determine, once and for all, whether
sewer overflows in Milwaukee could contaminate beaches
The groundbreaking nature of the research, however, comes
from the set of tools employed to identify sources, according
A triple-play combination - genetic makeup of E. coli
bacteria, antibiotic resistance of the bacteria, and the
presence of caffeine in water samples - will clarify potential
sources, said Sandra McLellan, an assistant scientist
at the WATER Institute.
McLellan and other scientists in her laboratory have
been identifying numerous strains of E. coli from human
sewage, gull droppings, cattle manure, and dog feces.
E. coli comes only from the intestines of warmblooded
animals and can indicate fecal contamination of water.
Distinct genetic 'fingerprints'
Strains from each host have evolved with distinct genetic
"fingerprints," or sequences of DNA. Those with similar
fingerprints are recognized as coming from a particular
host species, McLellan said.
She began assembling this piece of the puzzle more than
two years ago when her laboratory first studied E. coli
at South Shore Beach. Her finding: Gulls at the beach
and nearby parking lot are the largest source of E. coli
bacteria to shoreline water.
Her database of E. coli genetic profiles will guide all
future water quality studies here and in other shoreline
The reason is that the DNA fingerprints of E. coli removed
from a water sample can be compared to her collection.
Then, McLellan can identify the bacterium's host, which
is close to pinpointing a source.
In addition to continuing her work on genetic profiles
in the next study, McLellan's team this year also is looking
for evidence of antibiotic resistance among E. coli and
the presence of caffeine.
The presence of either would indicate human waste in