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Testing the Waters
The water at public beaches can draw hordes of swimmers and a lot of bacteria, too.
John Karl
Earthwatch Radio

Signs that say "No Swimming" are popping up more than ever at public beaches. The water isn't necessarily more polluted these days. But it is getting tested more often, and people are finding more signs of contamination than they expected.

The problem is most often bacteria, and apparently they're coming from human and animal waste. But exactly how those bacteria get into the water is often a mystery. A recent report from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says that in half of the beach closings and advisories issued during 2001, the sources of bacteria were unknown.

Sandra McLellan is an environmental toxicologist at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. She's helping develop techniques that use DNA to find the origins of this beachfront bacteria. McLellan says rain storms or melting snow can carry bacteria from parking lots, streets and rooftops into storm sewers and ultimately into rivers and lakes.

"If you look at the amounts of bacteria that are carried in storm water runoff, they can be significantly high in a very large area. Almost every community has some kind of storm water system that puts the storm water into the rivers and subsequently the lake."

McLellan says sometimes the problems are right next to the beach.

"Local sources, such as waterfowl roosting or storm water runoff from pavement, can really impact that small amount of water we're testing. It doesn't take much to drive up those numbers, you know, those numbers of bacteria in that water that's right next to the shoreline."

McLellan says we're likely to hear more about water quality and swimming safety in coming years. Federal law now requires states to develop comprehensive monitoring plans for their beaches.

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