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May 24, 2011

MADISON -- Water quality monitoring starts later this week for 118 public beaches along Wisconsin's Great Lakes amid encouraging signs that pollution-reduction steps are working and as new testing methods come on line on several beaches.

"Since the beach monitoring program started in 2003, there has been a trend of improving water quality at our Great Lakes beaches due to the steps communities and partners have taken to tackle pollution sources," says Chris Pracheil, the Department of Natural Resources water quality standards specialist coordinating the Wisconsin beach program. "Some communities in particular, like Racine, are starting to see a big payoff to their work."

Wisconsin has monitored water quality on at least 110 Great Lakes beaches every summer since 2003 to reduce the public's risk of exposure to water-borne illnesses. Local governments assess water quality and the DNR provides funding through federal BEACH Act funds it receives for monitoring on Great Lakes beaches. DNR also contracts with the U.S. Geological Survey to provide online results at the Wisconsin Beach Health web site [] (exit DNR).

In 2010, 4,361 beach samples were collected across the 14-week summer monitoring period and 3 percent had bacterial levels that resulted in a beach closure. No beach was closed for more than one day and the proportion of samples with elevated bacterial levels was lower than the 7-year average, Pracheil says.

The improvement in water quality has been particularly dramatic at Racine beaches. Between 2000 and 2005, the city did comprehensive surveys to determine potential sources of pollution degrading water quality at the beaches and then implemented different mitigation strategies to improve surface water quality, according to Julie Kinzelman, laboratory director of the Racine Public Health Department.

"We re-engineered a major outfall; put in dune ridges to manage surface runoff from parking lots, and changed the way we groomed the beach," Kinzelman says.

The city also added more garbage cans at the beach, a solar trash compactor, passed an ordinance prohibiting people from feeding gulls, and provided a comprehensive education program.

The results? North Beach has had no closures since July 2007 and no more than five water quality advisories since 2005, and Zoo Beach has had fewer than 10 advisories or closures during that same period, Julie Kinzelman says.

She credits several factors. "The mayor and city council have always been willing to act on information which will improve our beaches," she says. "There has also been great cooperation between municipal departments -- parks, public works, and the health departments have worked together well to define what the problems are and seek solutions. And we've got great volunteers."

Kinzelman also credited DNR and the federal funds available to help the city pay for routine monitoring. The state program also brings local governments together to exchange information, get hands-on training, and learn from one another, as more than 80 participants gathered earlier this spring in preparation for the start of the monitoring season.

Racine's work has benefited other communities in Wisconsin's Great Lakes program: the city helped the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency develop the beach sanitary survey that is now being used across Wisconsin and nationwide to identify potential sources of pollution.

So far, such pollution investigations, also known as "sanitary surveys," have been done on about 30 Great Lakes beaches since 2004; these investigations have led to mitigation and/or restoration efforts on at least six of these beaches, Pracheil says.

Potential sources of E. coli contamination at Wisconsin beaches include urban storm water, sewage overflows and agricultural runoff. In addition, wildlife and waterfowl feces contribute to high levels of E. coli in both beach sand and water.

An advisory sign is posted warning swimmers that there is "an increased risk of illness" whenever the water quality criterion of 235 colony forming units (CFU) for E. coli is exceeded. A red STOP sign is posted, and the beach closed, when E. coli levels exceed 1,000 CFU, or whenever local health officials think it's warranted.

This summer, DNR is reducing the required sampling frequency at high priority beaches from four times a week to three times, due to budgetary constraints. However, all monitoring partners with high priority beaches got some additional funding to collect four samples weekly at their high priority beaches during high use periods like holidays and festivals, Pracheil says.

And some sites also may get to keep four-day-a week monitoring through work that Kinzelman and Greg Kleinheinz, a University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh professor, are doing under a federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative grant.

New testing methods being used at some Wisconsin beaches

Wisconsin is a national leader in using new water quality tests to deliver quicker and more accurate results. UW-Oshkosh and the City of Racine are setting-up five facilities around the state that use a molecular-based test to provide lab results in as little as two hours instead of 18- to 24-hours. The time-lag associated with traditional testing can lead to unnecessary closures and advisories, as well as delayed-detection of potentially unhealthy conditions, according to Adam Mednick, a DNR researcher who has been working on alternative methods to improve beach monitoring.

Mednick is involved in developing and implementing water-quality "nowcasts" which provide managers with daily estimates of beach water quality, based on real-time indicators such as water clarity, rainfall, wave height, and lake currents.

Mednick recently received one of the top awards given to a DNR staffer for his efforts to lead an interagency team that is developing the nowcasts. DNR has worked with the Ozaukee County Public Health Department to operate a nowcast at Port Washington since 2009, and is working with other partners to expand this type of system to at least 20 beaches by 2013. This summer, nowcasts will be tested at additional beaches in Ozaukee County, Racine, and potentially other locations around the state, Mednick says.

Go online for beach conditions or sign up to get email notification

People can go online to Wisconsin Beach Health [] (exit DNR) to learn the latest beach conditions at 118 Lake Superior and Lake Michigan sites. People also can sign up to get beach advisories e-mailed to them about specific beaches and can get RSS feeds to see the most recently entered status for any monitored beaches along the Great Lakes.

Visitors also can find water quality information for more than 100 inland beaches including those monitored by the City of Madison, La Crosse County, Waukesha County Parks, and Winnebago County.

In 2010, there were a total of 1.3 million hits to the beaches home page, which is an average of 3,600 page views a day. The busiest time of the year occurred in July with a total of 485,000 views to the home page.

FOR MORE INFORMATION CONTACT: Chris Pracheil, DNR, (608) 267-9603,; Officials at participating health departments:

Last Revised: Tuesday, May 24, 2011

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