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Studies also show wetlands could lower bacteria levels at State Park beaches, but more work is needed.



BY DAVID MITCHELL
Indiana Times

July 17, 2002

PORTAGE -- Creating wetlands surrounding Dunes Creek may be the first step in lowering the levels of bacteria that have caused the recent closures of the Indiana Dunes State Park beaches, officials said Tuesday at an E. coli Task Force meeting.

But some say that realizing the current method of E. coli testing is antiquated and useless should be the next move.

"E. coli testing is on its way out," said Richard Whitman, chief of the Lake Michigan Ecological Research Station. "It actually goes back 100 years. We've always done E. coli testing."

What the current bacteria testing fails to do is to distinguish between "non-pathogenic" E. coli, which is not harmful, and the strands of the bacteria that can cause problems if ingested by swimmers. More importantly, Whitman said, testing for levels of E. coli significant enough to warrant beach closures does not account for other bacteria that may be more harmful than E. coli.

The current method of testing takes about 24 hours to determine whether levels of the bacteria are considered too high to be safe for swimmers. That means a beach may be closed after it was already in use with presumably unsafe levels of contaminants.

Beaches with high concentrations of bacteria are closed and then tested again the day following the results. Just before the Fourth of July weekend, eight of the 11 beaches at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore were closed for the weekend because of high bacteria levels. According to Whitman, results of samples taken the following day -- but not known until a day later -- showed the water at six of those beaches was safe for swimming and they could have been open for the weekend.

There are too many conditions that could change the levels of bacteria in the water, Whitman said. For instance, testing done in the morning most likely would yield far different results from afternoon tests. Wind and rain also play a factor.

But mainly, if it isn't determined whether the type of E. coli found in the water is harmful, beaches may be unnecessarily closed, Whitman said. The future goal is to develop testing with quicker results that focuses not just on E. coli, but water quality in general.

"It has to be in real-time and it has to go to the central point of public health," Whitman said.

As far as Whitman's most recent conclusions on limiting the bacteria levels at the State Park beaches, the effort should begin with creating wetlands to replace the series of ditches lining Dunes Creek. The ditches most likely were put in place to serve as drainage for nearby rural developments. But as the ditches increased in number, so did the amount of bacteria flowing from the ditches, down the creek and into the lake. Creating a wetlands area would essentially hold water in surface areas rather than force it into the creek.

"Dunes Creek is a surrogate for a larger system," Whitman said. "It's extremely complex with no easy solution. ... The best way to reduce (the bacteria levels) is to eliminate the ditches."

State Rep. Ralph Ayres, R-Chesterton, attended the task force meeting at the group's invitation. Ayres recently sent a letter to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management asking what was being done to eliminate the source of a problem that has closed Indiana beaches at an alarming rate.

National Lakeshore beaches were closed 26 times last year because of high bacteria levels. In 2000, bacteria levels shut down National Lakeshore beaches 23 times. Already this year, beaches have been closed 16 times. While Ayres praised the task force's work so far, he noted that much work still has to be done.

"This is one study and we need to address more," Ayres said, adding, "The source is the key. What is the source at each part of the lake."

David Mitchell can be reached at dmitchell@howpubs.com or (219) 762-4334.

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