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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

A lonely lifeguard watches over a beach closed for bacterial contamination. The geese don't seem to mind. © City of Racine Department of Health
A lonely lifeguard watches over a beach closed
for bacterial contamination. The geese don't seem to mind.

© City of Racine Department of Health

June 2003

A beachhead for safe swimming

For the first time, water quality at all of Wisconsin's popular coastal beaches will be monitored, and the public alerted when the water is unsafe for swimming.

Lisa Gaumnitz


A patchwork system and imperfect tests
Working toward better testing and notification
Narrowing the search for sources
"I got mad, and I got mad at me."
Tips to swimmers to enjoy a safe summer on the beach

In 2002, fun stopped at the water's edge.

Signs warned swimmers not to use Milwaukee's South Shore Beach due to poor water quality on 50 days, McKinley Beach on 23 days, and Bradford Beach on 21 days. Racine beachgoers were left high and dry on 27 days at North Beach and 22 days at Zoo Beach.

And in a shocker that garnered national headlines, 68 people got sick over the summer from swimming at Door County's seemingly pristine beaches. By summer's end, 13 Door County beaches had been closed for at least a day when tests detected unhealthy conditions.

The unflattering spotlight on Wisconsin's beaches triggered fingerpointing over the source of the contamination and how to stop it. The 2003 beach season opens with a continued search for answers. Fortunately, some important pieces are coming together to assure safer swimming this summer.

For the first time ever, water quality at public beaches along Wisconsin's Great Lakes coast and in all state parks will be regularly tested, and people notified of unsafe swimming conditions. Coastal counties have agreed to follow uniform plans developed by a team of state and local health and environmental officials and interest groups. In return, the coastal counties will split federal money available through the federal Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act, or BEACH Act, for beach testing and notification on coastal waters.

"Right now, the public is adamant about so many different sources – gulls, sewage overflows, storm water, illegal discharges from boats, pet waste and a number of other things," says Toni Glymph, the DNR toxicologist who led the team. "Everybody has their own opinion, but the data is inadequate to draw conclusions. Since monitoring was not consistently done at most beaches, there has been a lot of pointing fingers and casting blame."

Adds Bill Schuster, the Door County Conservationist: "I think there are some in the public who want one simple answer, one solution. But the science tells us it's far more complex. It's multiple potential sources and it could be different sources for different beaches."

The headlines from summer 2002 moved beach health onto the front burner for many local government, civic and business leaders. They are working the State Capitol and congressional delegations to get funding, attention and action on beach issues.

"The kind of publicity Door County got last year is not conducive to attracting people to live here or locate their business here," says Bill Chaudoir, executive director of the Door County Economic Development Corp. "Our number one asset is our water. We need to eliminate this major barrier to maintaining this great quality of life."

A patchwork system and imperfect tests

Local and tribal health departments are responsible for public beaches within their borders, with the exception of beaches on state properties, which the Department of Natural Resources monitors. The state Department of Health and Family Services (DHFS) gave local governments a model beach monitoring and notification program, but the responsible agencies aren't required to follow it, according to Tom Sieger, director of the DHFS Bureau of Environmental Health. Because monitoring isn't mandatory, and because local governments typically don't have adequate funds to pay for such efforts, Sieger says there has been considerable variation in how frequently beaches are sampled, if at all, and in how people are notified when unsafe swimming conditions are detected.

Among coastal counties, Racine, Kenosha and Milwaukee counties regularly monitored beach water quality for more than 20 years and over time have ratcheted up testing frequency. Last summer, Milwaukee sampled beach water every day and Racine sampled five days a week.

In recent years Manitowoc has conducted regular monitoring, but the rest of the Great Lakes counties with public coastal beaches haven't done so.

© design by Toni Glymph

"There's been an uneven playing field for a long time," says Bob Bagley, director of Racine's public health laboratory for the last 17 years. "When people saw Racine beaches were closed, they presumed there were health reasons, and that other beaches remained open because their water was clean. Well, they were open because nobody tested. We were being handicapped for doing what was right."

Door County started regularly collecting samples in summer 2002, and sends its samples down to the Laboratory of Hygiene in Madison for analysis.

"In past years we would only test if we had a complaint or illness," says Rhonda Kolberg, director/health officer for Door County. "We haven't had the manpower or the history to show we needed to do testing. But I think everyone knows now we have to test and people are behind it."

The county started regular sampling after DNR alerted health officials to a cluster of illnesses among campers at Peninsula State Park. Subsequent county water tests revealed high bacterial levels in the water at Nicolet Bay Beach. When people reported getting ill after swimming at other Door County beaches, the county expanded the testing effort.

The tests themselves are imperfect tools. Hundreds of organisms cause diseases in humans, but it's difficult and expensive to detect the individual organisms in beach water samples. Testing relies instead on detecting "indicator organisms" that may reveal the presence of bacteria and consequently, pathogens.

Fecal coliform, the indicator organism historically used, is widely found in the environment as well as in the feces of humans and other warm-blooded animals. Wood, for instance, can contain high levels of the bacteria that tests positive for fecal coliforms, so wood debris in the water may cause a spike in a beach water reading, but not pose a threat to human health.

Milwaukee, Racine, and some other Wisconsin governments recently switched to using the bacterium Escherichia coli as their indicator because it's more specific to humans and animals. But E. coli has drawbacks, too. Current tests don't tease out whether a high E. coli reading came from human feces or feces from ducks, dogs or some other animal. Consequently, it's difficult to know for certain whether the water contains any human disease-causing organisms. It also takes 24 hours to get test results from E. coli sampling.

Federal and state officials are working to develop more rapid testing methods and models to predict when beach waters may be unsafe. Milwaukee and a few other health departments now use such models to help determine whether to close beaches, but even those calls are still made in part on day-old information.

Some water experts say current testing systems are so flawed they should be scrapped, and funding directed instead at finding and controlling pollution sources. Glymph says both monitoring and source identification are needed. When done consistently and uniformly, monitoring can help identify trouble spots and trends, and allow researchers to check how water quality varies after rainstorms, sewage overflows, or other factors.

The lack of historical records makes it difficult to judge if beach health is getting worse and if so, why? Wastewater from cities and industries was previously a big source of water pollution. Daily bacterial loads from such sources have been drastically cut since the 1980s and the number of sewage overflows has been significantly slashed. A July 2002 report by the Legislative Audit Bureau, for example, found that Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District had cut from 50 to about eight the average number of sewer overflows and the volume of those overflows was cut by 81 percent since 1994.

Working toward better testing and notification

The year 2000 amendments to the Clean Water Act responded to growing national concern over beach closings and gastrointestinal illnesses associated with beach water. The legislation, known as the BEACH Act, required states to develop testing and notification programs for coastal waters and made federal funding available for those efforts. The BEACH Act also required states to choose E. coli or Enterococci as an indicator organism by April 2004, and to use limits set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) when deciding to post beaches with health advisories.

The Department of Natural Resources has secured a $287,000 EPA grant to develop the program and is applying for another $226,000 grant to help implement the beach health program in counties along Lake Michigan and Lake Superior.

© design by Toni Glymph

In late 2001, Glymph convened a workgroup with representatives from DHFS, local health departments, and groups with an interest in beach health to gather data on beach use and potential sources of contamination, interview beachgoers, and collect suggestions for improvement. Glymph also hired seasonal help to gather facts. Heather Kelley compiled a list of 60 public coastal beaches, then drove back roads to find these sites and ferret out another 113 public beaches that offered car access. She used global positioning satellite technology to map each beach location and tally public beach miles. Kaveish Sewalia visited each beach to gather information about potential contamination sources. He counted bathers and waterfowl, identified the number and location of storm water and sewer outfall pipes, and determined beach slopes. Ben Vail surveyed beachgoers to learn if current methods to notify them of beach water conditions were effective, and to collect suggestions for improvements.

In December 2002 and January 2003, Glymph shared the workgroup's proposed plan with citizens in coastal communities. She asked which beaches were a priority for testing, and how people wanted to be notified of beach water quality. The Department of Natural Resources submitted a revised plan to the EPA in March, becoming the first Great Lakes state to finish its plan.

Wisconsin's 180 coastal beaches were categorized into high, medium and low priority based on popularity and risk of contamination. Higher priority beaches will be tested more frequently and counties with more beaches will get more federal aid. Though inland beaches can't qualify for the money, the safety program has been designed to work there as well, pending funding.

Twenty-five high-priority beaches will be tested five times a week – 13 in Door County, four in Ozaukee County, three in Milwaukee County, two each in Racine and Sheboygan counties, and one in Manitowoc County at Point Beach State Park. Thirty-eight medium-priority beaches will be tested twice weekly and the remaining 117 beaches will be tested once a week or as determined on a case-by-case basis. All state park beaches will be tested at least once a week. State park beaches located on Lake Michigan or Lake Superior that are designated as high or medium priority will be tested accordingly.

Heavy rainfall, sewage leaks, spills, and beaches with elevated bacteria counts would warrant more frequent sampling.

All samples will be collected in the middle of the typical bathing area. For longer beaches, the counties will collect one sample for every 500 meters of beach. Samples will be collected in 24 to 30 inches of water at 6 to 12 inches below the water's surface.

"We want to protect the most vulnerable population, children, so that's why we test in knee-deep water where children are," Glymph says.

Every day, the high-priority beaches will post one of three signs to advise beachgoers of water quality for that day – good, poor, or closed. "We agreed to post every day so the public can be assured they're getting up-to-date information," Glymph says."We also don't want beach users to assume the water is safe by default. Posting a sign that says 'good' indicates the water has been tested and found safe."

And bathers may visit Wisconsin Great Lakes Beaches with daily water quality reports for all high-priority beaches on Wisconsin's Great Lakes.

"We certainly view this as a good thing," says Bagley, who served on DNR's beach workgroup. "I think the state is providing a lot of leadership, some standards, and some funding. People should know that the local health people are at least monitoring the water they're swimming in. That's a minimal expectation."

Narrowing the search for sources

When the Southeast Wisconsin Beach Task Force – which includes the Department of Natural Resources, the health departments, Citizens for a Better Environment, the Sixteenth Street Community Health Center, the Great Lakes WATER Institute, Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD), and state Rep. Jon Richards – started investigating beach contamination in the late '90s, headlines documented MMSD's release of raw or partially treated sewage into Lake Michigan and its tributaries after heavy rains to avoid damaging treatment plants or causing sewer backups. Some people speculated the sewage overflows were linked to beach closings as far away as Chicago. EPA concluded in2002 that it was unlikely that MMSD sewage overflows caused Chicago beach closings.

No definitive studies have established or discredited that link, but one is underway by researchers at the WATER Institute as part of the continuing hunt for pollution sources.

"I had this impression there was this huge amount of contamination in Lake Michigan and we just had to figure out where it was coming from," said Sandra McLellan, an assistant scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's Great Lakes WATER Institute. "People were asking, is it from the farms, is it from sewer overflows, is it from storm sewers? And the answer is yes, yes, and yes."

Water sampling of tributary streams showed high E. coli readings after rainfalls and after sewage overflows. Whether these plumes cause a problem at beaches is a big question, McLellan says. For instance, contamination at South Shore Beach in Milwaukee didn't seem to come from the lake: "On many days there was very little E. coli coming to the beach," McLellan said. "We'd take 50 samples from different parts of the lake and they'd be clean. But we'd get to the beach, 10 meters from the shore and the E. coli readings would be in the thousands."

McLellan is using DNA fingerprinting techniques to determine if the E. coli samples found at the beach matched that from gulls. Gull feces carries very high bacterial loads exceeding 340 million E. Coli cells per gram. Other samples suggested a nearby marina parking lot was a source of contaminants: E. coli readings from runoff exceeded 100,000 colonies per 100 milliliters after a rain. Uncovered trashcans at the marina also were a problem. McLellan says the Milwaukee County Parks Department hopes to use a grant to keep contaminated water from the parking lot from entering the lake. Parks staff also changed trash collection policies to help reduce beach contamination.

This summer McLellan and other researchers hope to get closer to understanding where contamination in the plumes from the tributary rivers is coming from, where it's going, and whether it poses a risk to human health. She'll determine if contamination is coming from human feces or other sources by looking for signs of antibiotic-resistant strains of E. coli that more frequently occur in people. Another colleague at the WATER Institute will look for the presence of caffeine, a sign feces are from humans and not from other animals.

Racine researchers found the county's practice of using machinery to pick up beach debris and groom the sand was actually exacerbating the problem. "The E. coli levels increased greatly if we flattened and finished off the grooming," Bagley says. "We were effectively burying the seagull feces under the sand where it's moist and warm."

E. coli flourished in the hospitable conditions, and sampling showed that sand within one meter of the water's edge had greater densities of E. coli than sediment under the water or in the water itself. This year, Racine beach managers will rake up trash but will leave the turned sand exposed to sun and air. The city also is modifying a nearby storm sewer outfall in hopes of reducing contaminants from that source.

"I got mad, and I got mad at me."

Local citizen groups in Racine, Milwaukee and Door counties actively advocate on behalf of Wisconsin's beaches. "I think the role we play is to be polite, but persistent both with the community at large and community leaders – it's worth investing in our beaches," says Dave White, a member of Racine's Keep Our Beaches Open and of the DNR beach workgroup.

The impetus to form the group came in 1997, when White took out-of-town guests to the beach for his 40th birthday and found it closed. "As if turning 40 wasn't traumatic enough, we got to the beach to find lifeguards patrolling it to keep people out of the water," White recalls. "I got mad, and I got mad at me. I'm the director of a nature center (River Bend Nature Center) and here was an environmental problem in my community that I hadn't done anything about."

Sixty people came to that first meeting, and the group has since pursued an active agenda of educating themselves and others about beach water quality.

"My background in environmental education leads me to the view that the reason for many environmental problems is the way we live," White says. "I wanted to form an effort that was collaborative and cooperative, not confrontational. I didn't want to assume our civic leaders were just sitting on their hands, and I found out there was a lot going on."

Keep Our Beaches Open sets up an exhibit at community events and festivals, and visits fourth-grade classrooms to educate children about beach issues. To prompt dog owners to properly dispose of pet waste, group members patrol a park near the main beach, planting next to dog feces a utility flag with the message, "It's cool to pick up the stool."

Five and one-half years later the group still has a good core of tenacious members working to keep Racine beaches safe. "That's good news and bad news," he says. "We didn't expect we'd need to be around this long to solve this problem."

Lisa Gaumnitz is public affairs manager for DNR's water programs.

Tips to swimmers to enjoy a safe summer
on the beach
Ask local beach health monitors:
Which beaches do you monitor and how often?
What do you test for?
Where can I see the test results and who can explain them to me?
What are the primary sources of pollution affecting this beach?

If your beach is not monitored regularly:
Avoid swimming after a heavy rain.
don't swim near storm drains if there are any along or near the beach. Storm drains are pipes that carry rain and snowmelt from streets.

Look for trash and other signs of pollution such as oil slicks on the water. They may indicate the presence of disease-causing microorganisms that may also have washed into the water.

Contact local health or environmental protection officials if you think beach water is contaminated so they can test the water and protect other swimmers from it.

Report any discharges of trash or sewage from boats.

Work with local authorities to create a monitoring program.