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Great Lakes Article:

DNR plan would spur closer scrutiny of beaches
Agency hopes for stricter testing of shores
Jennie Tunkieicz
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Beaches along Lake Michigan might soon be tested with the same kind of vigor and under the same regulations as Racine beaches.

A plan being developed by the state Department of Natural Resources would make federal funds available to test all 170 beaches on Lake Michigan and Lake Superior for disease-causing organisms.

Dave White, of the grass-roots Racine group Keep Our Beaches Open and a member of the DNR Beach Work Group, said last week that the plan would level the playing field because the same standards and procedures would be used across all coastal communities.

It also would benefit all of the people who use Wisconsin beaches because most swimming areas in the state are not tested unless a problem is detected, White said.

In Door County, for example, monitoring was done at the main beaches last year only after an outbreak of illnesses occurred in July. Racine beaches are tested daily.

"What happens in communities that don't test is that people assume the beaches are clean when they may not be," White said.

In 2002, advisories were issued at more of Wisconsin's Lake Michigan beaches than in the past due to high levels of E. coli bacteria found in the water.

Advisories to warn people about high levels of E. coli bacteria also were issued more frequently at Racine beaches this past swimming season.

North Beach had 27 advisories in 2002, up from 17 in 2001; and Zoo Beach had 22 advisories, up from 21 the previous year.

In Milwaukee County, high levels of E. coli bacteria in water prompted warning signs to be posted a record number of times at three 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.

During such warnings, beaches are not closed, but people are warned to swim at their own risk. That might change under the new DNR plan.

Julie Kinzelman, microbiologist for the City of Racine, said the DNR was considering having communities actually close beaches if high levels of bacteria are detected.

The DNR last week concluded a series of meetings seeking public comment on the monitoring plan. A hearing was held in Racine on Dec. 4. The DNR expects to announce its plan this week.

Meanwhile, in Racine, a study looking at the impact of grooming sand is yielding good results and continues to attract international attention.

The study has been looking at whether grooming the beach affects the presence of bacteria in the sand, if the bacteria count is lower in ungroomed portions of the beach and what the impact is on bacteria in the sand if the sand is turned over at deeper levels during grooming.

"This past season, we put into practice with the actual beach grooming equipment what we had found while doing the test plots that we hand-raked," Kinzelman said.

What was found is that when the sand is wet or damp, if it is groomed deeper and the finishing process is eliminated, less bacteria is detected, Kinzelman said.

Kinzelman said the city's beach groomers will be putting this finding into practice for this summer.

"We will see if that will give us some relief from that non-point source of pollution, but it won't be a cure-all," she said.

Kinzelman and her co-researchers presented the findings in September at the 5th International Symposium on Sediment Quality Assessment in Chicago.

Attracting attention

Other lake water quality research done in Racine also is gaining international attention. This month's edition of the Applied and Environmental Microbiology journal has published a study written by Kinzelman and co-researchers on "Enterococci as Indicators of Lake Michigan Recreational Water Quality: Comparison of Two Methodologies and Their Impacts on Public Health Regulatory Events."

"I've been getting e-mails from all over the world requesting reprints," Kinzelman said. This past week she heard from people in Moscow, Portugal and India.

Also, 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 come from?

The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District has awarded a $772,000 grant to the Great Lakes WATER Institute for a three-part study of water quality in the lower Milwaukee River and harbor.

The study should determine, once and for all, whether sewer overflows in Milwaukee could contaminate beaches in Chicago.

The groundbreaking nature of the research, however, comes from the set of tools employed to identify sources.

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 warm-blooded animals and can indicate fecal contamination of water.

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.

Gulls are issue

She began assembling this piece of the puzzle more than two years ago when her laboratory first studied E. coli at Milwaukee's South Shore Beach. Her finding: Gulls at the beach and nearby parking lot are the largest source of E. coli bacteria in shoreline water.

Her database of E. coli genetic profiles will guide all future water quality studies here and in other shoreline communities.

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 water.

For information about the group, Keep Our Beaches Open, call Dave White at (262) 639-0930, Ext. 11.

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