Great Lakes beach ranking disputed

Beaches found with high levels of E. coli bacteria can cause sickness in swimmers. Ohio beaches were ranked second-to-worst in the nation, according to the NRDC. Image via the EPA.

Great Lakes states once again dominated the bottom of a beach health and safety list released by the Natural Resources Defense Council before July 4 weekend.

The region placed in the bottom two-thirds of the list in 2009; this year’s findings show little improvement.

But some Great Lakes beach and health experts say the council’s report inaccurately reflects monitoring methods and unfairly interprets state data.

The Natural Resources Defense Council report ranks 30 U.S. states based on the number of times their reported beaches exceeded national health and safety standards.

Minnesota fared the best out of Great Lakes states in 2010, coming in at number 11 with its beaches exceeding the national standard of safety five percent of the time. It jumped ahead one spot from 2009.

Ohio ranked the worst, coming in a number 29; the state exceeded the national standard 21 percent of the time.

Wisconsin dropped six spots to the bottom two-thirds of the list this year.

The changes in ranking from 2009 to 2010:

The Ohio Department of Health isn’t surprised with the results, said Jennifer House, the department’s public information officer.

“We know that some of the Lake Erie beaches have bacteria problems and that’s why we conduct sampling so frequently at the most popular bathing beaches,” she said.

But Shannon Briggs, a toxicologist with Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources, said the council overlooked a number factors when it drafted the report.

For instance, the report measures beaches against the national standard for the amount of bacteria allowed in water. A sample with more than 235 Escherichia coli colonies per 100 milliliters of water is dangerous to swimmers’ health. E. coli causes human sickness such as cramps and diarrhea.

But Michigan measures its beaches based on a standard of 300 E. coli, not 235. According to Briggs, the difference is too microscopic to matter.

“The thing about E. coli is these things grow and die exponentially,” she said. “To pretend that 235 is significantly different than 300 is a leap. The NRDC dismisses our state standards and calculates our data based on standards that they choose to use.”

Another flaw is that Michigan’s beach data, like other Great Lakes states, is on a tiered system, Briggs said. That means dirty beaches, ranked at tier one, get extra monitoring attention.

“The funding provided for monitoring beaches in the Great Lakes is designed so that the state has to rank their beaches based on a tiered system. There’s a tier one, two and three,” she said. “Obviously there’s not enough money to monitor all beaches.”

The result is multiple samples and testing data for the dirtiest beaches and no data at all for the cleanest, because the states can’t afford it. The council failed to take this into account when it accumulated data for the report, Briggs said.

“When the NRDC comes along and looks at state summaries, the beaches in the Great Lakes have been highlighted so our data is going to be reflecting the contamination,” she said. “The Great Lakes states are being responsible. We’re highlighting the beaches with problems. We don’t have enough money to monitor the good beaches because they’re good; they don’t have a problem.”

Illinois experts also disagreed with aspects of the report.

The primary source of beach contamination in the state is not always runoff, said Justin DeWitt, chief of general engineering with the Illinois Department of Public Health.

“We’re not in agreement that runoff, especially stormwater, is the primary source — which is kind of what they seem to indicate,” DeWitt said. “We’re much more focused on looking at things like geese and gulls. We think that’s the primary source of E. coli, and we think the executive summary [of the report] misses all of that. It says beaches are polluted and no one is doing anything.”

DeWitt added that it’s unfair to compare the health of Great Lakes beaches with the health of coastal beaches, due to the differences in ecological sensitivity.

“If you talk to any parks in Great Lakes states they may have pointed out it’s a bit lopsided to put Great Lakes in with coastal beaches,” he said. “Our dynamics are significantly different than beaches that are on salt water. While you may say dirty is dirty — and I’d probably agree — to compare the two is apples and oranges.”

The report also named repeat offender beaches — beaches that had frequent problems with contamination and exceeded health standards more than 25 percent of the time from 2006 to 2010.

Four Great Lakes beaches made this list:

  • Eichelman beach in Kenosha County, Wisconsin. The cause was stormwater runoff and wildlife waste.
  • South Shore beach in Milwaukee County, Wisconsin. The cause was unknown.
  • Villa Angela State Park in Cuyahoga County, Ohio. There was no cause listed.
  • North Point Marina’s North Beach in Lake County, Illinois. The case was unknown.

Following the results of last year’s report, critics say the report emphasizes percentages and numbers, instead of recognizing that Great Lakes beaches test their beaches on a highly regular basis — some as many as every day of the week.

Although there are practices that can impact the rate at which a state exceeds the national standard, but the frequency of sampling is not one of them, Devine said.

“Typically more frequent routine monitoring might result in more or less closing or advisory days, but shouldn’t typically change the percent exceedance rate,” he said. “Some states or beach managers do have proactive responsible policies of testing near outfalls or testing immediately after a storm event that is likely to lead to contamination. Those kinds of things can affect their rate of exceedance.”

The point of the report is to encourage frequent testing and inform the public, said David Beckman, the council’s water program director.

“One of the flaws of testing across the country is that it’s a function of the science and technical limitations,” he said. “Each test is taken on a beach on Saturday and takes 24 or 48 hours to get the results, which means you can have a whole weekend full of people using the beach and find out Monday morning — after it’s too late — that the beach had unsafe levels of bacteria.”

The report did note that rankings and percentages, while indicative of contaminated water, are not intended as an indication of the success or failure of a state’s beach monitoring program.

“It is not necessarily an indication that the state’s beachwater quality monitoring program is deficient or fails to protect public health when beachwater quality is poor,” according to the report.

Other rating systems have broader criteria for evaluating beach quality. A recent ranking of best Great Lakes beaches included these measures.

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About Laura Fosmire
Laura Fosmire

2011 graduate from Michigan State University. Bachelor of Arts in arts and humanities + journalism. Future graduate student of journalism at Columbia University. Loves politics, things that are green, Anderson Cooper and coffee. Social media enthusiast.

  • Krystyn

    Thank you to the Echo for another good article about beaches on the Great Lakes and to the commenters who are taking the dialogue further.

    This article reminds me that we need to figure out a way to talk about beach water quality without creating incentives for agencies to hide problems. When we highlight “problem” beaches (which is an important thing to do), we also create an incentive for agencies to hide problems to avoid negative publicity. When we focus solely on the “clean” beaches, we fail to face up to some really important issues like aging infrastructure and sewage pollution (the cause of some beach problems). I have no idea where the balance is, but sometimes I think it would be awesome if some of the people in more polluted areas just said, “yep, we have a real problem here. Help us solve it.” The few times I’ve seen that attitude, it’s actually worked!

    As we look towards the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act in the US and the 30th anniversary of environmental legislation in Ontario, I feel like the real question is: Are we truly committed to restoring and protecting swimmable water? I sure hope the answer is yes!

  • ScienceLover

    @ Janice and Liz … Thank you for being objective and using science to question old methods of decision making wrt beach safety.

    @ Jeff and Downstreem… Perhaps you could set a better example for those children you care so much about by being less hostile to scientific research … which …god forbid…may one day save your lives from any number of diseases!

  • Andrew

    Janice you go Girl!
    Respect to you for your wise and well written answer

  • Janice

    Believe it or not. professors actually live in the real world. They pay taxes, they have families, they go to beaches.

    Let’s get back to the facts and stop slamming researchers.
    1. E. coli beach monitoring is based on a study from the 1980s that was conducted on marine beaches. One study, done by a professor.
    2. That study found a relationship between E. coli counts on beaches and intestinal illness reported at local clinics.
    3. To monitor beaches for E. coli, a water sample is collected and filtered and that filter is put on a plate of growth medium and left at least overnight to grow.
    4. The next day, a researcher counts the colonies of E. coli on the plate.

    If you put these facts together, you will realize that when you and your children are at the beach on a Saturday, for example, the results of what the E. coli counts were on that day will not be known until Sunday.

    So let’s continue to monitor beaches for E. coli so we can know a day or two later what the E. coli counts were. Let’s not do research into a better way to do this to protect people from actual disease causing organisms, because scientists are a waste of space. Then we can sit back and pat ourselves on the back for protecting our kids from E. coli, which they probably have by the billions in their gut tracts already.

  • Dowstream

    Well put Jeff. If we got the professors and Shannon Brigss in a room together, the problem would probably be solved. At least until they stepped out of that room and back into the real world.

  • Janice

    I agree with Gary and Jeff. Let’s rely on an outdated method to test for beach safety and not rely on the people who actually study this issue.

  • Gary Wilson

    …agree, well said Jeff. Enough parsing.

    Kids on a potentially unhealthy beach aren’t reading academic journals.

  • P. Oopy

    Wow.. Read the report. The E. Coli issues noted in the comments are addressed—they are easy to test for and indicative of an array of other bugs. And the Illinois issues about bird poo are included in the state report—there is even a picture of Chicago’s trained collies running after gulls. Let’s admit there is an issue and work towards solutions.

  • Jeff

    Professors. Ok. E. Coli is an indicator bacteria. I’d invite you to go swimming at my beach when e. Coli counts, the standard for Michigan testing, are above the standard. Let’s see how your health fares. Get off your hair splitting horses.

  • Liz

    This report repeats a common misunderstanding of the role of E. coli is assessing water and beach quality. The E. coli that are being monitored are not the E. coli that cause human illness.

    E. coli are a normal and healthy part of the intestinal bacteria of all animals, including humans. Because E. coli are found in the guts of all animals, they are also found in fecal waste. E. coli are easy to monitor, relative to the microorganisms that may actually cause disease, such as human enteric viruses, and so E. coli counts are used to indicate, to suggest, that fecal waste is present and that it is possible that other microorganisms that cause human disease might also be present.

    There are many potential sources of E. coli to beaches from huamn sewage, which carries a high risk of these other microorganisms, to bird droppings, to E. coli that naturally live in the sand at beaches and pose no risk to human health. There are many considerations to take in to account before concluding that an elevated E. coli count at a beach means there is a health risk.

    Elizabeth Alm
    Microbiologist
    Central Michigan University

  • Janice

    Once again I must dispute a statement in a Great Lakes Echo article. “E. coli causes human sickness such as cramps and diarrhea.”

    The reason water samples are tested for E. coli is because they INDICATE THE PRESENCE of fecal material (but they do not tell us the animal the feces came from; could be from any warm blooded animal) in the water and fecal material could contain disease-causing microorganisms (viruses and(or) bacteria like Salmonella, Shigella and Campylobacter). There is a huge assumption here, that E. coli come in with the feces and then die off, since the freshwater environment is not their natural environment. Thus they are assumed to indicate recent fecal contamination.

    Most people and other animals carry around populations of E. coli in their intestines with no ill effects. In fact, these organisms are part of a community that serves many functions in the intestinal tract that improve our health. There is a strain of E. coli called O157:H7 that is disease-causing, but the testing done at beaches does not look for this rare strain. The testing is simply done as an indicator of recent contamination by fecal material.

    I have been involved in beach research on Lake Huron and our work has shown that E. coli, rather than dying out in a day or two after being introduced to the beach environment, can persist and even grow (replicate) to high numbers in the beach sand, where it is warmer and protected from uv radiation. Our work and research in other labs is calling to question the usefulness of using E. coli as a fecal indicator, since high numbers could represent resuspension of bacteria into the water column from the sediments.

    I recommend your reporter delve a little deeper into the scientific literature, and not add to the misplaced hysteria about E. coli, most of which are harmless.