By Chao Yan
Capital News Service
The state of Michigan is offering $200,000 to help local agencies monitor water quality in inland lakes this summer.
Localities and nonprofit groups have until Feb. 28 to apply for Department of Environmental Quality grants to measure levels of E.coli — a bacteria that can cause bloody diarrhea, severe anemia or kidney failure — off inland beaches, according to Shannon Briggs, a program director in DEQ’s Water Resources Division.
Michigan is currently keeping watch on about 380 inland lakes, about half of the state’s total. Water quality data helps officials determine if a lake is safe for swimming. It is reported to the website Michigan Beach Guard, part of the DEQ site, and compiled in a statewide report.
State law gives the authority for monitoring and testing public beaches to local health departments and their partners, Briggs said.
In 2015, DEQ distributed $200,000 under the Clean Michigan Initiative-Clean Water Fund to 13 local agencies to monitor 135 inland lakes for two years, according to the 2015 Annual Beach Monitoring Report. This year, several local health departments said they have told DEQ they plan to apply.
Sarah U’Ren, program director for Watershed Center Grand Traverse Bay based in Traverse City, said her group hasn’t finalized the budget for this year’s application. It received $15,700 in 2015 to monitor nine inland lakes in Leelanau County.
“It’s going to be a continuation of the same beaches, same protocols, hopefully for acouple of extra weeks, depending on how much funds we can get,” U’Ren said.
The Watershed Center also works to educate the public on beach safety.
“We always tell people, if your beach is located next to a storm drain, or there are lots of ducks and geese hanging out at the beach, you should be careful because the water you touch could contain E. coli,” U’Ren said.
Locals support the project and are thankful that testing is taking place, according to U’Ren.
“But I think our biggest problem is finding funding to actually conduct beach monitoring,” U’Ren said. “We do the inland lake beaches as well as Great Lakes beach monitoring at the same time. We get a certain amount money every year, but it’s never really enough to test the number of beaches we want to test.”
Briggs said the department usually negotiates with applicants on their final funding amounts.
“The attempt is to distribute the funds to as many applicants as possible,” Briggs said. “Typically the requested amount is more than what is available, and what we do at that point is to talk to applicants and ask them if they are willing to accept a lesser amount, and if they are still able to monitor their higher priority beaches.”
Steve King, director of environmental health services in the Central Michigan District Health Department, said he was notified by DEQ in December that less money might be available this year.
“That’s why we identified a couple of beaches that have never had any high results of sampling, or in remote areas that lack potential contamination sources,” King said. “We are now considering dropping these from our list.”
King said laboratory analysis is a major cost along with mileage, as the testing is covering five counties — Arenac, Gladwin, Clare, Osceola, Roscommon — and Houghton Lake Heights.
A new test available in 15 Michigan labs uses a process called qPCR, a DNA test that can identify E. coli within a few hours. DEQ is working through a couple of grants to help more communities upgrade from a 24-hour test to the more rapid qPCR test.
“We have in Michigan several qPCR laboratories — two in the Upper Peninsula and several in the Lower Peninsula—with local health departments that have been trained to use this method,” Briggs said. “It is still in the pilot stage.”
DEQ is comparing results between the new and old methods to make sure they are consistent, Briggs said.
Joel R. Strasz, health officer for the Bay County Health Department in Bay City, said the new test speeds up the determination of whether levels of E. coli are unsafe and whether a beach should be closed down.
“What we have been doing for the last six years is standardizing the methods of using qPCR,” Strasz said. “We are trying to get to a point where the technology can be easily replicated and most local organizations have the equipment.”
However, money could be a factor that chains them down, according to Strasz, for the qPCR — even though the cost is going down — is a much more expensive test.
In addition to equipment and supplies, “you have to have expertise and physical plant to do the test,” Strasz said. “Plus, there is no private business doing this so far.”