Lake Superior beach bacteria testing set to start next weekMinnesota will begin testing Lake Superior beaches for potentially harmful bacteria next week, but federal budget cuts could make this the last summer for waterfront testing.
By: John Myers, Duluth News Tribune
Minnesota will begin testing Lake Superior beaches for potentially harmful bacteria next week, but federal budget cuts could make this the last summer for waterfront testing.
The beach-testing program, now in its 10th year and funded through the Environmental Protection Agency, has paid for Great Lakes and coastal states to test waters at popular waterfronts for the presence of E. coli bacteria — an indicator species for other bacteria that could make swimmers and others sick if they swallow any water.
The program is paid for through the coming summer season. But the Obama administration zeroed-out the program from the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget for 2013-14, saying states should pick up the reins, and the bill, going forward.
“While beach monitoring continues to be important to protect human health and especially sensitive individuals, states and local governments now have the technical expertise and procedures to continue beach monitoring without federal support,” the EPA said in a statement in February when the cuts were first revealed.
The program costs nearly $10 million each year nationally, with Minnesota receiving about $200,000 every two years. Wisconsin gets a little more to test waterfronts on Lake Superior and Lake Michigan.
The feds have footed $111 million for beach water-quality testing since the grant program first authorized in Congress’ BEACH Act in 2000. Because of the federal funding, the number of monitored beaches has more than tripled to more than 3,600 in 2010, the agency said earlier this year.
Officials of the joint Canada-U.S. Great Lakes Commission, in a recent letter to key lawmakers, urged Congress to restore the beach funding, saying it helps both local residents and the region’s $70 billion annual tourism industry.
“Safeguarding beaches is both a public health and an economic priority for our region,” the commission wrote.
Several area officials involved in water-quality issues say the program should continue to be funded.
“I think it would be a huge mistake to not fund it,” Rich Axler, research scientist at the University of Minnesota Duluth’s Natural Resources Research Institute, told the News Tribune. The program along with related research “helps answer important questions regarding sources of pathogens and waterborne illness (and) public health risks.”
Cynthia Hakala, beach testing program coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Health, said it wouldn’t be appropriate for the state agency to lobby for continued money at this time. She said state officials so far haven’t talked about whether the state might pick up the tab in 2013.
“For the time being, we are continuing with business as usual,” Hakala said.
For this summer, eight early-season beaches around Duluth will be tested starting next week, Hakala said. Starting June 4, as Lake Superior begins to warm up and more people head into or onto the water, all 39 beaches in the program — from downtown Duluth’s harbor to beyond Grand Marais — will be tested at least once each week.
If unsafe bacteria levels are found, the beach is posted with a “No Water Contact Recommended” sign and the website www.mnbeaches.org is updated. Retesting is done immediately and the beach reopened when bacteria levels drop.
The program has been widely acclaimed as a way to steer people to safer waterfronts and away from those that are routinely high in bacteria, mostly in the harbor. And they are a way to make people feel safer about where they swim, kayak, wade or fish.
Last year, of the 755 samples taken, 13.5 percent triggered water-contact advisories.
A decade of testing has found relatively few problems and one general rule: Lake Superior waterfront areas are usually safe, while harbor sites have more issues. In 2008, for example, 94 percent of the 625 water samples taken along Duluth and North Shore beaches showed very low bacteria levels. Most of the 6 percent of samples that showed elevated levels were taken at waterfront access points on the harbor side of Park Point.
Experts advise generally avoiding water contact in the harbor. They also suggest avoiding all areas after rain and wind rile up bacteria in the sediment or wash bacteria off land into the water.
Contamination comes from a variety of sources, including wildlife and pet feces, storm water runoff, sewer line breaks and overflows, failing septic systems, dirty diapers, waste discharge from boats, swimmers and anglers. The contaminated water is a potential cause of gastrointestinal illness and other diseases.