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Testing keeps local beaches safe

ESCANABA — Hot weather is here and brings with it people enjoying the water at a beach to cool off. Notifying people when bacteria is too high in the waters along Delta and Menominee shorelines is Public Health, Delta and Menominee Counties’ (PHDM) Environmental Health Director Ian Nelson. Water is tested weekly at the Gladstone Beach and Escanaba Municipal Beach in Delta County, and Memorial Beach and Henes Park in Menominee County.

“Currently we are testing in the bathing beach areas and following up as needed, or after a rainfall greater than an inch of rain,” said Nelson.

Through the summer, bathing areas are tested for E. coli bacteria. The results are mainly affected by rain events.

“A lot of rain can move through a surface carrying fecal matter and delivering it into the bays,” said Nelson. “If city wastewater treatment plants release partially treated combined sewage into the water, they must tell us and post the event publicly.”

In 2019 municipalities had to release unprocessed wastewater into the bays. The city of Gladstone is working on a project plan with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) by upgrading the plant in the next two years to handle the flows and water currently going into their collection system due to elevated ground water levels. According to Gladstone Wastewater Superintendent Rodney Schwartz, the plant hasn’t released any partially treated wastewater into the bay this year.

“Due to the elevated levels of Lake Michigan last year, a discharge pipe that went into the lake was overwhelmed … that pipe is plugged now. We’ve seen the highest flow this year with no event,” said Schwartz.

Residents active in contaminated water can get a recreational water illness, according to the CDC. Germs and chemicals in the water enter bathers swallowing the water, breathing in tiny water droplets from the air, or being in direct contact with contaminates. It can make a person sick with a rash, diarrhea, or worse.

Nelson tests the amount of E. coli organisms in water. E. coli organisms come from warm blooded animals. Higher levels of E. coli in the water is an indicator of sewage contamination and increases the chance of someone getting sick after swimming.

“We collect three samples from each site and test it at the Escanaba Water Treatment Plant,” said Nelson.

If a test shows over 300 E. coli organisms per 100 milliliters of water, PHDM will issue

an advisory to the municipality.

“We want the tests to show a geometric mean (average) under 300 organisms,” Nelson noted.

According to Nelson, the PHDM closed Gladstone Beach and Henes Park once this year and both opened right back up.

While testing the water, Nelson also does an environmental survey recording birds and algae present, the temperature of the water, and wind direction, to gather additional information that could affect the E. coli count.

“The areas we choose to test have a good amount of use and are closer to municipal treatment areas where a lot of people use the water,” said Nelson.

The PHDM has an agreement with the state who funds the work through a grant.

“The whole objective of the program is to protect people from high levels of bacteria in the beach water,” said Nelson.

PHDM sends sampling results and advisories to EGLE. Updates can be found on the website, www.deq.state.mi.us/beach. Information of 1,218 public and 560 private beaches in Michigan can be found on the website. For more information contact the Environmental Health Division of Public Health at 906-786-9692.

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