High bacteria levels cause closures along Michigan beaches | News, Sports, Jobs

News Photo by Courtney Boyd
Calm waters at Blair Street Park just moments before rainfall on July 10, 2024. This is the sight of Alpena County’s last known beach closure from E. coli, which happened in 2013.

ALPENA — Throughout the summer, Michigan has seen beach closures occurring along the shores of the Great Lakes and inland lakes. Most commonly, these closures happen due to high Escherichia coli, or E. coli, levels in the water.

As of 5 p.m. on Wednesday, there were eight beaches closed within Arenac, Bay, Macomb, Oakland, Lenawee, and Allegan counties. Beach closure information is updated regularly on BeachGuard, a site run by the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE).

Jeff Johnston, a public information officer with EGLE, said that the spring and summer are when bacterial spikes occur, mainly due to thunderstorms and runoff.

“This is a situation that’s not necessarily caused by human activity,” he said. “But when people come along and start swimming, we have reason to safeguard our health, (so) we start looking for these things and finding them.”

Johnston said there are many natural causes for high bacteria levels, such as waterfowl like geese and seagulls, faulty septic systems, and general storm runoff caused by heavy rain. He said the water bodies tend to naturally break down the bacteria after it enters, and within a few days the bacteria will dilute and the water becomes safe to enter again.

Johnston said that the closures themselves are determined by the district health departments. Alpena County is covered by District Health Department 4, which also covers Montmorency, Presque Isle, and Cheboygan counties.

The latter county saw two beach closures recently that lasted for one to two days. Mullet Lake was one area that was closed until July 10, and according to the local health department, the location is susceptible to high levels of bacteria.

“There has to be this perfect storm for it to all come together,” said Kevin Prevost, an Environmental Sanitarian at District Health Department 4. “Wave action, water that gets trapped by the wall, and high populations of waterfowl… You add all those together, and that’s where we see those elevations.”

District Health Department 4 covers four counties: Alpena, Montmorency, Presque Isle, and Cheboygan. Prevost said that the health department focuses their testing efforts on the three counties that touch Lake Huron, and the department will test certain beaches and inland lakes weekly for any changes.

Prevost explained that sample locations are premeditated, and they must collect three samples from that area. He said samples are reviewed within six hours of collection and need to meet a certain “geometric mean,” or average, for the water to be determined safe or unsafe to swim in.

He said E. coli levels cannot be over 300 per day or 120 over a 30-day period, and if they are, the beach owners will be given signs and instructed to close. Prevost said the department will then return daily to test until the water levels return to a safe level, and he said usually it returns to normal after a day.

Prevost said in recent years, Northeast Michigan has not seen many closures as compared to other areas of the state.

“We’ve been blessed, we have very few occurrences,” he said. “And we hardly have any inland (lake) issues.”

If any more closures were to be made in northeast Michigan, Johnston said beachgoers should take “reasonable precautions,” and provided a few safety tips such as:

∫ Don’t enter the water if you’re sick or have open wounds,

∫ Look out for signs on beaches that may list bacterial exposures or other dangers,

∫ Wait a few days after rainfall to ensure harmful bacteria breaks down, and

∫ Shower after swimming.

“EGLE’s responsibility is to protect the natural environment and public health,” Johnston said. “We want to see everyone come away from their trip to the beach this summer feeling good, feeling refreshed, feeling happy and well. The beach can be a wonderful place … If you’re not prepared or make bad decisions, it can lead to some bad consequences. We want everyone to enjoy their time at the beach this summer.”

This story was produced by the Michigan News Group Internship Program, a collaboration between WCMU Public Media and local newspapers in central and northern Michigan. The program’s mission is to train the next generation of journalists and combat the rise of rural news deserts.

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