Michigan effort focuses on storm drains as source of water contamination


Lake Superior public waters are giving off a foul odor – at least to a dog named Sable trained to detect human sewage.

Last week Sable picked up the smell of human waste near storm drains in several coastal parks in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula; the Chippewa County public beaches consistently test high for bacteria.

The county health department brought in the canine to determine the source of contamination.

Storm drains threaten the water quality of Traverse Bay near several state parks. Photo: Tatiana12 (Flickr)

“Now comes the hard part,” said Christine Daley, supervisor of environmental health of the Chippewa County Health Department.

If storm drains are to blame, the department will work with municipalities and responsible parties to correct the problem.

Chippewa County is one of many Great Lakes communities looking to clean up public waters by identifying and treating problem storm drains, which flood in heavy rains and send dirty water into nearby lakes and rivers.

A recent Milwaukee study found that 90 percent of outfalls contained human sewage.

An organization in Traverse City, Mich. starts construction on several stormwater treatment projects next year.

And there’s an effort to identify problem storm drains in Michigan.

The state is creating an inventory of sewers next to public beaches with funding from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, said Shannon Briggs, a toxicologist with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

“If we can identify the source, then we should be able to fix it,” Briggs said.

It will take time to determine the extent of the problem, but it’s common, she said. Communities built storm drains next to public beaches because they often owned that land and it was the only place to release stormwater.


The Chippewa County beaches are some of the dirtiest in Michigan; they consistently test high for Escherichia coli – present in human feces.

“The counts are pretty alarming,” Daley said. 

Two busy Lake Superior beaches – Brimley State Park and Sherman Park – both have neighboring storm drains, Daley said. But there are a number of things that contribute to contamination.

Once testing turned up high levels of bacteria, the next step was to figure out if it was human, she said. Last week the county brought in a dog that sniffs out human sewage and determines its source.

Sable picked up the scent of human sewage from storm drains at Brimley State Park and Four Mile Beach.

A Lake Michigan coastal community also used dogs to track human sewage in Traverse Bay, which typically turns up high levels of bacteria after heavy rains.

The Watershed Center in Traverse City identified several problem storm drain systems near Bryant Park and East Bay Park beaches.

Three storm drains threatened water quality near the village of Sutton Bay.

Storm drains and pubic beaches are a bad combination, said Sarah U’Ren, program director of the Watershed Center.

The center is moving forward with several projects that treat contamination in storm drains before it reaches the water. It has several options: smart sponges that filter out contaminants, constructed wetlands and bio-filtration systems.

“We hope to drastically reduce the amount of pollution entering the bay from stormwater,” U’Ren said.

But treatments are costly. The center has roughly $1 million in Great Lakes Restoration Funds to prevent overflows at Sutton Bay, $767,000 at East Bay Park and $240,000 at Bryant Park.

The system depends on the storm drain, U’Ren said. The East Bay and Bryant Projects will likely rely on “brick and concrete,” while there’s more room for biological solutions at Sutton Bay.

“Some parks have more surface area to work with and other parks, if they have high use, don’t want to see half the park taken up for a filtration system,” she said.

Construction starts in 2012.

“We hope to get the two beaches removed from the state’s impaired waters list,” U’Ren said.

View GREAT LAKES ECHO: Storm Drains & Public Beaches in a full screen map

One thought on “Michigan effort focuses on storm drains as source of water contamination

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *