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Wisconsin is a national leader in implementing a coastal beach-monitoring program, and a big reason for this success has been public participation during all stages of developing and implementing a program.
"In all counties we have worked, people really want to know what is happening in their communities," says Dr. Gregory Kleinheinz of the UW-Oshkosh Biology and Microbiology Department, which contracts with several coastal health departments to monitor beaches on Lake Michigan and Lake Superior.
The DNR strives to involve as many stakeholders as possible as it works on two related missions: establish statewide standards to test for health risks, and finding ways to effectively communicate beach health risks to the public.
Congress passed the BEACH Act in 2000 to ensure nationwide consistency, but each state was left to implement its own plan. Early on, the Department of Natural Resources created a workgroup and in 2001, all coastal counties, along with several municipalities, water scientists, state agencies and environmental groups were invited to join in.
Public meetings, social surveys, direct contact with stakeholders, an Internet survey and other tools were used to learn public concerns regarding beach water quality and shape a monitoring program to respond to these needs.
As recommended by EPA, Wisconsin tests coastal beach water for E. coli bacteria that can indicate the presence of harmful organisms such as viruses and bacteria. The workgroup specified how water samples would be collected and analyzed.
The workgroup representing coastal health departments, the state Department of Health and Family Services, the State Laboratory of Hygiene, the Racine-based environmental group Keep Our Beaches Open, the UW-Milwaukee Water Institute and state parks had insights into which beaches to test and how. But the workgroup was not certain where all the Great Lakes beaches are located.
Public input helped pinpoint beaches and determine how they should be monitored. People at the beach pointed out public access areas and gave information about how often beaches are used, which helped health departments rank beaches for monitoring.
Given limited funds, health officials want to target monitoring to the most widely used beaches and those that may have physical features that can lead to high E. coli levels. For example, beaches that are near parking lots or sewer and street drains may experience higher levels of E. coli after rainstorms, as garbage and street debris are washed into the surf.
Beach locations became clearer during public meetings in the winter of 2002-2003. Seventy-one visitors also filled out surveys suggesting how to make the program work.
Surveys of beach visitors in the summers of 2002-03 gauged attitudes about beach water quality and public health issues.
In the Southeast Region, where beach monitoring has been routine for many years, survey results suggest the public is more likely to obey health advisories than in other parts of the state. Where beach monitoring practices were less developed or nonexistent, the public was less likely of all to obey warnings. One-time tourists are least likely to read and heed posted beach warnings.
Survey respondents also describe what kinds of advisory signs they want to see, where signs should be posted, and through which media they want to get beach information.
Toni Glymph, a DNR microbiologist directing the monitoring program says, "We are living in a society that is more conscious about what we eat, how we exercise, and about our overall health and well-being. The public wants to know what has the potential to affect their health. Ignorance is not bliss."
Public notices follow the survey results. Signs inform beach visitors about current conditions. A website announces daily updates on water quality conditions at beaches around the state. A brochure was designed for state park visitors. And in 2004, a toll-free hotline carries daily information about each beach and the public can sign up for daily e-mail alerts about beaches of their choosing.
The Department of Natural Resources continues to solicit ideas from local chambers of commerce, state tourism officials and local citizens groups. Continued advice from beach-goers will to improve the program. The guiding principles continue to promote providing useful, timely health information for beach visitors to make their own choices about when to enjoy the beach.
Benjamin Vail is project coordinator for the Wisconsin BEACH Program.