Great Lakes problems playing out on region’s beaches

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Great Lakes beaches are a window into the health of Great Lakes water. Photo: John Lillis (Flickr)

By Jeff Alexander

Great Lakes beaches are known for breathtaking vistas and recreational activities that drive the region’s tourism economy, but a growing number of experts are viewing those same beaches as important indicators of ecosystem health.

“Beaches are a window to the Great Lakes,” said Cameron Davis, senior advisor to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson, at a recent Great Lakes Beach Association conference.

“Beaches are what connect people to the Great Lakes … beaches can also be indicators of problems,” Davis said.

If that’s the case, what are the more than 1,000 beaches on the U.S. side of the Great Lakes beaches telling us about conditions in one of the world’s largest freshwater ecosystems?

“Our beaches are telling us that the Great Lakes are under enormous stress,” said Joan Rose, the Homer Nowlin Chair in Water Research at Michigan State University.

Rose said municipal sewer overflows, leaky septic tanks, polluted stormwater runoff and invasive species are harming water quality at a number of beaches on all five Great Lakes.

That was evident this past summer, when bacterial pollution and nuisance algae blooms forced health officials to close

Bacterial pollution and nuisance algae close beaches on all five Great Lakes. Photo: Department of Natural Resources

numerous beaches on each of the five Great Lakes. Even Lake Superior, which is known for its clean water, was affected.

Bacterial pollution was so severe at New York’s Ontario Beach Park, in Rochester, that health officials closed the beach for the majority of this past summer.

At Jeorse Park Beach in Gary, Ind., health advisories warning people about the dangers of swimming in the polluted, algae-laden waters of southern Lake Michigan were posted for much of the summer.

“Jeorse Park has one of the dirtiest beaches in the U.S. – it exceeds the E. coli (water quality) standard 75 percent of the time,” said Richard Whitman, a U.S. Geological Survey ecologist and chief of the agency’s Lake Michigan Ecological Research station in Porter, Ind.

E. coli is a bacterium that lives in the gut of warm-blooded animals; it’s an indicator of fecal matter in water.

Experts agree that the Great Lakes are cleaner and healthier than in 1972, when Congress passed the Clean Water Act. But the lakes, which provide drinking water for 30 million people, remain plagued by environmental problems that threaten human health, harm fish and wildlife and hurt the region’s multi-billion dollar tourism economy.

According to government data, in 2012:

  • Bacterial pollution tied to human and animal waste forced beach closures in all eight Great Lakes states.
  • Blooms of cladophora algae that breed harmful bacteria forced beach closures at several sites on lakes Ontario, Huron and Michigan.
  • Toxic algae blooms remain a chronic problem on Lake Erie, although a drought this year reduced the sized of the bloom.
  • A rare bloom of potentially toxic blue-green algae in July coated nearly two miles of Lake Superior shoreline in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore with green scum.
  • Outbreaks of Type E botulism killed scores of water birds along beaches in northern Lake Michigan. Since 1990 Type E botulism outbreaks, which have been exacerbated by invasive zebra and quagga mussels, have killed more than 87,000 birds at beaches along lakes Michigan, Erie, Huron and Ontario.

On a regional basis, Great Lakes beaches are closed more often by bacterial pollution than beaches in any other region of the United States, according to government data analyzed by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

According to the most recent government data, 11 percent of water samples taken from Great Lakes beaches in 2011 violated health standards for bacterial pollution.

Many sources contribute to bacterial pollution at Great Lakes beaches, but cities with faulty sewer systems are one of the most obvious and chronic sources of water pollution, said Lyman Welch, water quality program director at the Chicago-based Alliance for the Great Lakes.

When rainfall overwhelms combined sewer systems, cities discharge the diluted sewage and stormwater into the nearest waterway to prevent flooding of homes and businesses. U.S. cities discharge more than 18 billion gallons of diluted sewage and stormwater into the Great Lakes each year, according to an Alliance for the Great Lakes study.

“It is vital that we address the sources of bacteria at Great Lakes beaches to protect public health,” Welch said.

But Congress in recent years has made deep budget cuts in the federal program that helps cities pay for sewer upgrades. Congress is now considering eliminating funding for beach monitoring programs, a move that could leave people guessing whether it’s safe to swim at their favorite Great Lakes beach.

13 thoughts on “Great Lakes problems playing out on region’s beaches

  1. Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels eliminated the Interagency E. coli Task Force when he took over in in 2004. There is little coordinated work going on now for Lake Michigan beaches and closures have increased from 1% in 2000 to 28% last year according to the recent Environmental Indicators report just released by One Region – One Vision group. There are some bright spots in Indiana where individual sanitary districts are implementing Long Term Control Plans but it is a slow process that needs federal resources to accomplish in a meaningful way.

  2. there’s a growing movement of people looking at the lakes from a Commons perspective – rather than a resource. the lakes don’t belong to us – we belong to them. science helps understand the science, but using the same kind of thinking to solve a problem that caused it (using science to rationalize how much we can pollute) is kinda insane.

  3. Pingback: Lake Ontario Waterkeeper

  4. I have said it before…, The Lower Great lakes and the Niagara River are very sick and dying. The “disease” is caused by conveyor disruption. The N.Y.P.A. ice boom does more harm to this ecosystem than everything else combined. Get your head wrapped around that! Those 2 Lakes had a very delicate balance and relied upon one another. The connection was made through annual spring ice flow. It cleaned Lake Erie and fed Lake Ontario. It also scrubbed and shaped the Niagara river shorelines and islands. I’d like to think the scientific community would come to accept “Ice Boom Theory” for fact before I die or worse the Lower Great Lakes Die. It’s going to be close. Read more at my site that exposes the lies behind 50+ year old environmental impact studies. It’s or google “Joe Barrett Ice Boom” thank you, JBB

  5. In the article several potential sources were mentioned as contaminant sources. Notably missing was any discussion of sewer plants that discharge into the lakes. In the later 1970s the Wastewater Research Division, Municipal Environmental Research Laboratory, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Cincinnati, Ohio, conducted a major study which documented that sewer plant effluent, treated or untreated, was and is a primary contributor of bacteria to the aquatic ecosystem. Continuing research has demonstrated that bacteria carrying transmissible R-factors are responsible for the spread of multiple antibiotic resistance among bacteria. The ability and the efficiency of different bacterial strains to donate or receive
    R-factors varies. Transmission of R-factors by conjugation is rapid and may spread rapidly among bacteria. When bacteria which carry transmissible R-factors are ingested, such as during swimming, the R-factors may transfer into commonly occurring bacteria of the gastrointestinal tract. These organisms may subsequently transfer
    this resistance to pathogenic organisms, resulting in reduced efficacy of antimicrobial chemotherapy in the event of an infection. In vivo studies have shown that when individuals carrying R+ bacteria are subjected to antibiotic therapy these organisms flourish and transfer their resistance to other bacteria.

    Dr Edo McGowan, Medical Geo-hydrology

  6. So once again the Great Lakes are the sewer system of the region, or is it still the same and all we have been doing for the last 30 yrs. is dancing with ghosts and pouring money down the sewer?

  7. I am one of the legions of workers that collect samples of lake water every Monday morning during the summer. The current time lapse between collection and reporting of the results is troublesome to say the least, everyone involved understands that issue. It is difficult to explain why the beach is closed “today” when it was actually bad “yesterday”! Until we can visit the beach and determine immediately that the water is or is not safe, I’m not sure that sampling is the answer. We are creating a database that can be used to determine the trends or variables that affect the water quality which in turn affects public health, and perhaps that is all we can expect for now. But I would like to see more funding that would help come up with a quicker analysis. Otherwise, we may start to see municipalities opt out of sampling, a move I would call “Ostrichcizing”…

  8. USEPA has eliminated funding for the BEACH Act to help cover a $105 Million reduction by the Administration in EPA’s budget. If Beach monitoring money is to be restored, it will be up to Congress.

  9. Pingback: How are the Great Lakes? Ask a beach | All Things Great Lakes

  10. Really?? “Experts agree” that the Great Lakes are healthier than in 1972? With all of the invasive species we have today, I find that hard to believe.

  11. Something that our DNR should learn very quickly is this: A healthy Natural Resources based ecosystems, produce a quality Recreational experience for ALL users. What this means is that the state agency we have entrusted our lands and waterways should get back to manageing and taking care of our Natural Resources and stop worrying about the people’s Recreational experiences. Building more Linear Bike Pathways, Conquering Recreation 101 mentality is only quickening the pace at which are Natural Resources are deteriorating in health. Proper actions are required immediately or Michigan will loose the unique lands and waterways that have defined us. What is the Department of Natural Resources thinking here? They have also forgotten they started out as the Department of Conservation. Now……they do not have a single plan or money dedicated to Invasive Species control. Most of their money funding is going towards recreation. Without health Natural Resources, there will be NO recreational experiences for anyone here.

  12. Everything I can find says we should protecting the zooplankton levels that affect everything. Yet we are forced to protect alewives that eliminate zooplankton. Makes no sense.

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