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Great Lakes Article:

Lake water-testing program may return this summer
Steve Gunn
The Muskegon Chronicle

Public swimming areas in Muskegon County are known for their clean, safe water.

County officials hope to enhance that reputation by bringing back a widespread beach-testing sanitation program.

But getting the program off the ground will be up to city and township officials, who will have to decide whether they want to pay for beach testing in their communities.

Any community that joins the program could help enhance the county's reputation for safe beaches, a reputation that isn't so common these days among shoreline cities in the Great Lakes region. There were hundreds of beach closings in states that border Lake Michigan last year, resulting from the presence of raw sewage in the water.

"It has a lot to do with tourism," said Vicki Webster, environmental health supervisor at the Muskegon County Health Department. "Last year we got a bunch of calls from people in Milwaukee, wondering if they came over on the plane, would the water be clean. If we monitor, we can continue to tell them the water quality is good."

Officials at the Muskegon County Health Department believe they will be eligible for two sources of funding that will help them pay for beach-testing this summer.

The program would be designed to test water samples from as many as 27 area beaches for the presence of E.coli, a bacteria that lives in the intestines of warm-blooded animals. While water-borne E. coli will not infect swimmers, high levels indicate that harmful bacteria might be present.

Officials are preparing a grant application to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality for a still undetermined amount of money. There's a very good chance that the grant money, provided by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency specifically for Lake Michigan beach testing, will be available for the county by summer, said Webster.

County officials also expect to get roughly $23,000 back from the DEQ for beach testing. The county was recently fined about $47,000 for sewer spills that polluted surface waters in the area, but state officials told them they could probably ask for about half of the money back for beach testing.

The grant money and the refunded fine money should be enough to get the program started, said Webster.

It would work like this:

A health department employee would travel to local beaches throughout the summer, collecting water samples and taking them to the Grand Valley State University Annis Water Resources Institute in downtown Muskegon for testing.

All 27 public beaches in the county would be eligible for testing, but the city or township where each beach is located will have to pay a still undetermined fee to participate, Webster said. In the case of state parks, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources would be responsible for the fee.

The fee will be less expensive for the 10 public beaches along Lake Michigan, because the EPA grant money can be applied to those beaches, Webster said. But every local government that participates would have to pay something, she said.

Every beach in the program must be tested at a minimum of three locations over five weeks, and each sample costs a minimum of $15 to analyze, so fees are necessary to cover costs, Webster said.

"We're putting together a package to offer to municipalities and state parks, telling them we'll make sure your beach is tested and here's how much it will cost you," Webster said.

The renewed beach-testing program is the result of a new state law that says all public beaches must be tested on a regular basis, or the local government must post a sign warning swimmers that they haven't been tested.

The testing focuses on levels of E. coli bacteria, which is typically traced to human or animal waste, Webster said. High levels of bacteria could be a sign of sewer or septic flow into a body of water, she said.

By doing the testing, local officials can continue to brag about clean water in the area, Webster said. In 2001, 17 area beaches were tested throughout the summer, and the results were "golden," Webster said. Last year the testing was limited to Muskegon's Pere Marquette Park, which again passed with flying colors, she said.

Muskegon County originally had a large-scale beach testing program in the 1980s, which revealed many sewage problems at area beaches, Webster said. The problems were addressed over the years, the water started testing clean, and the program was dropped in 1988, she said.

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