County to monitor 45 public beaches on 37 lakes this year
There is an old adage that says, “If you want something done, you’ve got to do it yourself.” While that statement may be a bit more amusing coming from a musically-inclined crab with a Jamaican accent, it’s nevertheless true in many circumstances, especially in light of the numerous budget cuts experienced by many Oakland County programs, including the county’s annual beach monitoring program.
Back in 2007, both public and semi-public beaches — those operated by property owner associations in residential neighborhoods and open to members — across the county were monitored regularly for potentially unsafe levels of bacteria. Of course, not every public and semi-public beach could be monitored that year — or in previous years — since Oakland County is home to a roster of 279 active public and semi-public beaches.
“Even if we were at full capacity, we wouldn’t be able to sample every beach in Oakland County in any given summer,” said Mark Hansell, the Environmental Health Services Unit supervisor for the Oakland County Health Division. “We used to rotate in semi-public beaches on a five-year rotation. However, for the last two to three years, we’ve only strictly tested public beaches.”
Budget cuts have forced the county to scale back the number of beaches it monitors each year from over 100 to just 45 public beaches on 37 lakes.
The lack of funding to collect water samples from more beaches may be reflected in the number of beach closings seen over the past several years.
In 2011, a total of four beaches on four lakes were closed for a total of five days because of high bacteria levels found in beach water samples. In 2010, 11 beaches were closed for 16 days, which is significantly different from 2006, when 22 beaches were closed for a total of over 90 days.
Back in 2006, more semi-public and private beaches were being tested, which Hansell said most likely accounts for the difference in results.
This is one of the reasons why Hansell strongly encourages lake associations and neighborhoods that share a semi-public beach to recruit volunteers to collect water samples and have them analyzed by the county for bacteria levels.
Although that water testing service used to be free, the county instituted a fee for water sample analysis at the beginning of this calendar year. For $6, the county will provide the necessary supplies for citizens to collect water samples themselves, do the lab analysis, and interpret the results.
“The fee is to cover the sample bottles and the materials necessary to conduct the test,” he said. “People can pick up bottles through the county Health Division. We also have instructions available on how to collect samples and where to turn them in for lab analysis. We really encourage people to do their own sampling. We hope people will take us up on the opportunity”.
And even on those lakes where public beaches are tested, people may be interested in collecting water samples from their favorite swimming holes that may not be part of the main beach.
According to the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), it’s a popular misconception that if one area of a lake is contaminated by high levels of bacteria, then the whole lake is contaminated. In reality, bacteria contamination originates from conditions or factors present on or near the shore in the immediate vicinity of the contamination. Two beaches on opposite ends of a lake that have different on-shore conditions will not have the same bacteria levels in the water. This is why it’s important for private homeowners who swim near their house to periodically collect water samples from where they swim and not rely on testing results from a beach down the road.
Since contamination originates on-shore, it’s generally considered safer to swim in deeper areas away from the shoreline, because wind direction and wave action could trap bacteria against the shore.
The main bacteria that water samples are being tested for is E. coli.
Most people have probably heard of beaches closing throughout the summer due to high levels of E. coli, and yet it’s not E. coli which most beachgoers have to fear. In fact, most strains of E. coli are harmless — with a few exceptions, such as the infamous O157:H7 strain, which is the strain most related to E. coli outbreaks in foods.
However, while most strains of E. coli are benign, they can serve as a useful tool for water quality monitoring.
Because E. coli lives in the intestinal tracts of warm-blooded animals, including birds and humans, it’s often excreted in feces. This makes E. coli a useful indicator of fecal pollution, which can contain other harmful pathogens like bacteria, viruses, and protozoa, according to Dr. Joanna Pope, a post-doctoral fellow at Michigan State University (MSU) working in the lab of Dr. Joan Rose.
Rose is the Homer Nowlin Chair in Water Research at MSU and an international expert in water microbiology, water quality and public health safety.
“In human fecal material, pathogens can include norovirus, salmonella and pathogenic strains of E. coli, such as O157:H7,” Pope said. “It may also be possible to detect other pathogens such as Cryptosporidium or Giardia. These pathogens can cause acute symptoms such as gastrointestinal illness (vomiting and/or diarrhea) and in some people, more chronic conditions such as kidney disease, skin rashes or longer-term fatigue.”
She added that the types of pathogens found in fecal matter can be “highly variable, both in type and abundance,” depending on the source of the fecal material.
There are a variety of sources that contribute bacteria and other pathogens to surface water resources.
Sources of bacterial contamination include combined sewer overflows, which are releases of raw or inadequately treated sewage from systems designed to carry both sewage and stormwater to wastewater treatment plants. When the volume of the combined wastewater is greater than the treatment plant can handle, the excess untreated sewage and stormwater are discharged into nearby waterways.
Sanitary sewer overflows are another potential source of bacteria. They are discharges of raw or inadequately treated sewage from systems designed to carry domestic sanitary sewage, but not stormwater. According to the DEQ, systems that contain cracks, obstructions, illegal stormwater connections, or that are undersized with sewers and pumps too small to carry all the sewage may leak or overflow raw sewage from manholes, bypass pump stations, and treatment plants into surrounding waters, particularly during extreme hydrologic events.
Failing septic systems also are a source of the bacteria that can force a beach closure. They can cause leaching and/or runoff into adjacent waterways, causing bacterial contamination.
Urban stormwater runoff from roads, roofs, construction sites, parking lots, and other impervious surfaces may contain fecal matter from pets and wildlife, representing a common source of the bacteria that sometimes fouls beaches.
Excessive waterfowl near beaches and animal waste runoff from farms and fields can work in tandem with stormwater runoff to contribute to elevated bacterial levels. Illicit connections of pipes containing sewage linked to storm sewers or surface waters are also a potential source of bacterial contamination.
If E. coli is present in high levels, it’s likely that other pathogens are in the water and sand, as well.
However, it’s very difficult to determine “a general risk frequency” with regard to beaches because of the multiple factors involved, according to Pope.
These factors include behavior such as swimming vs. playing in the sand; susceptibility of the person, such as the difference between children and adults; and the weather conditions, such as onshore vs. offshore winds.
“All of these factors can influence the possibility of health risks for a particular beach,” she said. “EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) studies along Lake Michigan where wastewater influences the shoreline suggests that 10 percent of the people over the swim season may get sick.”
According to the DEQ, epidemiological studies of fresh water bathing beaches have established a direct relationship between the density of E. coli in water and the occurrence of swimming-associated gastroenteritis. The recognition of this relationship has led to the development of criteria that can be used to establish recreational water standards.
These standards specify that water samples from monitored beaches must meet a one-day standard of no more than 300 E. coli bacteria colonies per 100 milliliters of water, and a 30-day geometric average standard of no more than 130 colonies per 100 milliliters of water. If a beach water sample exceeds either of those standards, the beach is closed until bacteria levels drop.
Typically, bacteria levels will drop within 48 hours as wind and wave action, as well as ultraviolet light from the sun help reduce bacteria levels. However, there are exceptions to every rule, and sometimes it make take longer for bacteria to die in a freshwater environment, especially if the water is stagnant.
Since illness can occur from swallowing water containing even minuscule amounts of fecal matter, it’s important to determine as soon as possible if a local beach is contaminated — which is why many county health departments routinely collect water samples at beaches for testing to make sure the water is safe for swimming.
“We think it’s an important component to summer-time recreation. We want to make sure the facilities people use are safe for swimming,” Hansell said.
Four paid summer college interns will be responsible for collecting beach water samples at the county’s public beaches this summer.
“These interns are students usually studying environmental health sciences who need internships for a completion of a degree,” Hansell said.
The monitoring program starts on June 4 this year and will continue for eight weeks, until July 27.
“We typically monitor through the last week of July. However, if there were beaches that were still having water quality problems, then we would continue to sample until problems clear up. In that case, we might monitor for 10 weeks occasionally, but only for the beaches having those issues.”
Each of the 45 beaches targeted for testing this year will be sampled at least once a week for those eight weeks.
If the lab results show E. coli bacteria levels exceed the state contamination standards, the county Health Division will close the beach by sending an intern to post a sign at the beach and by notifying the beach contact person.
“If the results would have us close the beach, then we resample (that beach) every day,” Hansell said.
The closed beach will reopen once the E. coli levels are once again below the state’s standards.
While being active in monitoring private and semi-public beaches themselves, there are also a few other things riparian residents can do to ensure that E. coli levels remain low.
Individuals can help prevent beach water pollution by conserving water; redirecting runoff; using natural fertilizers and compost in gardens; maintaining their septic systems properly; and properly disposing of animal waste, litter, toxic household products and used motor oil. People who use a beach also shouldn’t feed the waterfowl or leave their trash because both continuously attract animals that may leave behind fecal matter.
As for remaining healthy while enjoying the beach, it’s always recommended to wash your hands after swimming or playing in the sand in order to avoid any invisible fecal matter from entering your system.
And as for the county eventually monitoring more beaches in the future, Hansell said he’s optimistic.
“We are making proposals right now that we hope will allow us to add back next year some of those semi-public beaches,” he said. “We are trying to include more for next season.”
For the latest information on Oakland County beach closures, go to the Oakland Lakefront website at www.oaklandlakefront.com, look for the “RESOURCES” pull-down menu and click on the “Beach Closings” link.