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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

A researcher collects water samples to test for bacterial contamination. The samples are also used to track variables such as temperature, water clarity, storm runoff and more to learn more about the sources of contamination. © Gregory T. Kleinheinz

June 2004

Safer shores

Recent legislation helps states keep a close watch on beach water quality, but funding for continued monitoring may be at low tide.

Benjamin Vail

A researcher collects water samples to test for the presence of E. Coli bacteria. The samples are also used to track variables such as temperature, water clarity, and storm runoff to learn more about the sources of contamination.

© Gregory T. Kleinheinz
Wisconsin's beach program | Testing the waters
Getting the word out | Understanding the health risks
Taking the initiative inland | For more information
How to reduce your risk of illness at the beach

The thermometer's pushing 97F, the central air unit unilaterally decentralized operations, and you can track your teenager like a wolf in snow by following his sneaker tracks in the sticky asphalt pavement. OK, so it's hot. What to do? Pack up the towels, swimsuits, flippers and kids, and hit the beach. And hope it will be open.

Although beach closings due to contaminated water are a relatively infrequent part of Wisconsin's summer scene, the beach water quality issue has attracted the attention of federal and state lawmakers.

In 2000, the U.S. Congress passed an amendment to the Clean Water Act called the Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health (BEACH) Act. This law requires all coastal states, including those along the Great Lakes, to adopt beach water quality standards and develop monitoring programs to protect public health. Congress appropriated about $10 million a year for five years to help states get their programs off the ground.

Cooperation between local governments and state agencies has made Wisconsin a national leader in implementing the BEACH Act. In fact, Wisconsin's program was up and running a year ahead of most other Great Lakes states. "As a result, the public is better informed of beach water quality at coastal beaches as well as the risks associated with swimming in contaminated water," says Chicago-based EPA Region V Beach Program Coordinator Holly Wirick.

Wisconsin's beach program

In 2000 the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources convened a workgroup composed of experts and representatives from local governments, local health departments, state agencies such as the Department of Health and Family Services, environmental groups and others to design and run a beach monitoring program. Several counties, notably Kenosha, Milwaukee, Manitowoc and Racine, already had beach monitoring programs in place. Their experiences served as models for the statewide program.

Today all of Wisconsin's Great Lakes coastal counties are participating in the program except Oconto and Marinette counties, which have no coastal recreational beaches.

The DNR facilitates local beach monitoring by helping define state water quality standards, developing monitoring protocols, training samplers, designing public communication plans, and funneling federal grant money to local health departments. Local health departments have jurisdiction over water quality at their public beaches, while DNR has jurisdiction only over beaches within state properties such as state parks. Federal and tribal lands are not monitored under the BEACH Act.

In 2002, DNR staff drove the entire Wisconsin coast line and identified about 190 public beaches on Lake Michigan and Lake Superior, of which about 110 were monitored last year. Beaches were divided into high, medium and low priority for water testing. High priority beaches are popular with the public and may have physical features that can lead to higher risks of contamination, such as sewer or street outflows or parking lots nearby. Low priority beaches are the least-used beaches. The ranking process helps to target limited resources to the most-used and highest-risk beaches.

Testing the waters

Water sampling is a straightforward procedure: The water sampler takes a sterile bottle and wades into the water at knee depth (about 18 inches), submerging a bottle to collect a sample. The beach workgroup selected the 18-inch depth as the typical depth that would be used by young children and wading adults near the shore. The bottle is capped and stored on ice until it is delivered to a certified lab for analysis. Local health departments usually collect the samples, but some health departments contract with outside help to run their monitoring programs. For example, researchers at the UW-Oshkosh Biology and Microbiology Department run the programs for several counties on Lake Michigan and Lake Superior.

At high priority beaches, water samples are usually collected once a day, five days a week. Medium and low priority beaches are sampled less often.

The sampler also takes note of biological and physical conditions at the beach – weather conditions, water temperature, turbidity, wave height, and the presence of people, animals, algae and waterfowl on the beach. All this data is entered into a central database for reporting to the EPA, where it is used for research into the causes of beach water problems.

In the lab, the water sample is tested for the presence of Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria. The EPA has recommended that states use E. coli as an indicator to assess whether bacteria, viruses and other threats to human health may be present in the water. This type of E. coli is not likely to make people ill by itself, but if found in high quantities it suggests that fecal matter is present and thus other disease-causing agents may be at high levels.

EPA recommends that states advise beach visitors of possible health risks when E. coli counts exceed 235 colony-forming units per 100 milliliters of water. In Wisconsin, a yellow "caution" sign is posted at the beach when this standard is exceeded. The beach may be closed and a red "closed" sign posted when E. coli counts exceed 1000 cfu/100ml. Also, the local health department may close the beach at any time if conditions suggest a serious health risk may be present, such as after a heavy rainfall. Intense rain can sweep garbage and other waste from parking lots and streets into the beach surf.

Getting the word out

Posting signs at the beach is the most obvious form of notification about beach water quality, but naturally people want to know about water conditions before they leave home with slippery sunblocked toddlers and heavy coolers in tow.

In response to public surveys and comments in 2003, several improvements will be in place this year. The public asked health officials to post more information about water conditions at monitored beaches. In response, new signs were designed – a green informational sign when E. coli tests are low, a yellow caution sign to be posted when the health standard is exceeded, and red "stop" signs to be posted when beaches are closed. Local authorities can also choose to post a blue "good" sign either with or in place of the green sign when E. coli counts are low. Though this system was approved by the beach workgroup and will be adopted by most participating agencies, several local health departments have chosen not to post the green or "good" signs. Theey are concerned the signs may scare away tourists or will make authorities liable for illnesses that might occur when such signs are posted.

It's now easier to look up the current conditions at any coastal beach on the Wisconsin beach health website ( The site contains information about the science and public policy issues surrounding beach monitoring. Site visitors can sign up to receive e-mail alerts with daily reports of beach conditions at specific beaches of their choosing.

A new toll-free hotline – 1-800-441-4636, ext. 1460 – has been developed in cooperation with UW-Extension. People can call the beach hotline anytime for updates of beach conditions in each coastal county, and also listen to recorded messages explaining beach signs and information about the program and beach monitoring activities.

Brochures explaining the beach monitoring program will be distributed to the public at state parks, health departments, tourism offices, chambers of commerce and other locations.

Understanding the health risks

The notification effort aims to help the public understand beach health risks and make informed choices about how to use recreational waters. To put the risks in perspective, research has shown the rate of infection for recreational bathers in water with an E. coli count of 235 cfu/100ml is eight illnesses per 1000 bathers. At the 1000 cfu/100ml level of E. coli, the rate of infection rises to 14 of every 1000 bathers.

The point is not to be afraid, but to be informed. All natural bodies of water contain a range of microscopic organisms, and health risks are always present for recreational bathers – even in swimming pools. For instance, lake water may contain bacteria, viruses, worms and protozoa. If ingested or absorbed through wounds or mucous membranes, these pathogens may cause gastrointestinal diseases and illnesses like the flu and common cold.

Signs posted at the beach reflect E. coli standards set for visitors who are immersed in the water while swimming. Those who are wading or walking on the beach do not face the same risks from waterborne pathogens as bathers, but studies have shown the water and wet sand in the surf area can have higher E. coli counts than deeper water or dry sand.

Whether in the water or near shore, it's wise to take some precautions to avoid health risks. The primary risk is from ingesting lake water, so keep your mouth closed and avoid swallowing water when you're underwater. After a swim or playing in the surf, be sure to wash your hands before eating and shower if possible.

How to reduce your risk of illness at the beach
Photo of adult and baby on a beach
  • Don't swallow water
  • Shower after swimming
  • Wash hands before eating
  • Change baby diapers before allowing children in water
  • Don't enter water if you are ill
  • Dispose of litter in containers, especially diapers and pet waste
  • Do not feed gulls and waterfowl
  • Conserve water in your household
  • Avoid using chemical fertilizers at home

Beach monitoring in 2003 revealed that by and large Wisconsin's coastal waters do not contain high levels of E. coli. As expected, water quality varied greatly during the summer, and from location to location. In many regions 2003 was the first year beaches were systematically monitored, so it's too early to discern clear trends or patterns in the data. Scientists and community members hope continued monitoring will produce useful data over the years to better understand and respond to beach water issues.

The program faces constraints in researching possible causes of contamination. The BEACH Act provided funds only for water quality monitoring and public notification, not for identifying sources of contamination or taking action to control contamination. However, the program's growing database of detailed information about beach conditions is helping researchers theorize possible causes and what to do about them. Many local governments, such as Door County and Manitowoc County, have created task forces to investigate the causes of high E. coli levels in their areas. The City of Milwaukee has developed a sophisticated model to predict when its beaches may have more health risks.

Theories abound about where high E. coli levels may be coming from. Possible contributors may include: algae, droppings from birds and other wildlife, rainstorms, lower water levels, higher water temperatures, zebra mussels, winds and currents, sewage spills, rainwater overflows, illegal boat dumping, dirty diapers, litter and the presence of ill swimmers. It's likely that weather and a range of biological, geographical, and social factors interact to produce higher risks of illness at the beach.

Taking the initiative inland

In 2004, several inland lakes will be monitored independent of the Great Lakes program using the same monitoring and notification procedures. In response to public demand, the Department of Natural Resources, Department of Health and Family Services, and the State Laboratory of Hygiene have pooled resources to fund daily beach monitoring at 10 state park beaches located around the state:

  1. Governor Nelson State Park, Madison
  2. Mirror Lake State Park, Lake Delton
  3. Hartman Creek State Park, Waupaca
  4. High Cliff State Park, Menasha/Sherwood
  5. Pattison State Park, Superior
  6. Big Foot Beach State Park, Lake Geneva
  7. Kettle Moraine State Forest – Northern Unit (Mauthe Lake)
  8. Kettle Moraine State Forest – Southern Unit (Ottawa Lake)
  9. Lake Wissota State Park, Chippewa Falls
  10. Willow River State Park, Hudson

The agencies pooled about $106,000 to pay for monitoring, laboratory analysis costs and grants to local communities for health-related programs. Many local governments around the state expressed a desire for state assistance in monitoring their local beaches, but it is unclear whether state funding will exist to expand the program in 2005.

The Wisconsin beach program continues to evolve. Every year more is learned about the ecology of the state's coastal waters, scientific research suggests new approaches to beach management, and the public demands improved information. To stay on top of the issues, the workgroup consults frequently with beach visitors, tourism operators, local business people and community representatives. This teamwork has resulted in a statewide program based on the best science available and capable of responding to many needs.

Federal funding for coastal beach monitoring is scheduled to expire after the beach season in 2005. Given state budget constraints, the future of beach monitoring in Wisconsin is not assured. But one thing is certain: The public will continue to demand safe, clean, swimmable beaches and the right to make informed decisions about when and where to swim.

For more information

Benjamin Vail works on Great Lakes beach quality issues for DNR's Watershed Management Bureau.