Studies also show wetlands could
lower bacteria levels at State Park beaches, but more
work is needed.
BY DAVID MITCHELL
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
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
"It has to be in real-time and it has
to go to the central point of public health," Whitman
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
or (219) 762-4334.