Ahh, summer, and the first beach advisoryFrom Duluth to Cook County, 40 North Shore beaches will be tested at least weekly.
By: John Myers, Duluth News Tribune
The Minnesota Department of Health reported its first Lake Superior beach advisory Tuesday, with too much E. coli bacteria at the Agate Bay Beach in Two Harbors, a sure sign that summer is here even if the weather isn’t cooperating.
The state’s beach monitoring program started Monday and will test 40 beaches from Duluth to Grand Portage all summer, every Monday, to check bacteria levels. Eight of those beaches, the most popular waterfront areas in Duluth, will be tested twice each week.
If bacteria counts show up unusually high in a lab report the next day, an alert is issued on the program’s website, e-mail alerts are sent and a sign is posted at the beach, which is then immediately retested. Alerts also are sent out when the bacteria counts drop back below the safe level.
The problem is that high E. coli bacteria may be an indicator of other, unsafe bacteria that could make people sick if any water is swallowed. Swimmers, kayakers, surfers, canoeists, anglers, waders and anyone who comes in contact with the water are vulnerable.
In years past, alerts tended to increase after rain and wind events, when bacteria on shore washes into the lake or when it’s stirred up from the lake itself. Advisories also are often posted for the shallower, warmer waters of the Twin Ports harbor.
Experts say it’s best to avoid the water soon after any rain and avoid swimming in the harbor at any time.
“That’s certainly been the pattern,” said Cindy Hakala, who manages the beach testing program for the health department. In fact, experts are developing ways to issue beach advisories before the water is even tested based on weather conditions, especially rain and wind, she said.
In most years, nearly two-thirds of beaches have no advisories, several have only one and a few — usually those on the bay side of Park Point in Duluth — account for most of the warnings. Last June’s massive rainstorm and flood spurred a few more beaches to have advisories than usual, but 42 percent of the beaches still had no advisories posted.
The beach monitoring program started in 2003 and is funded through a $210,000 allocation from the federal Environmental Protection Agency, although that money could go away at any time, Hakala noted, as federal budget cuts continue to loom.
This year, the state Legislature also approved another $105,000 annually that will give the program some chance to battle back against bacteria. While the federal money can be used only to test water and notify the public, the state money, from the sales-tax-funded Clean Water Land and Legacy Fund, can be used to find out what’s causing the high bacteria levels and even try to close off the source.
“We’re hoping we can do some source tracking and try to get the upper hand,” Hakala said. “And it gives us some breathing room if the federal money goes away.”
Past studies have shown bacteria can come from animals and birds, especially geese, but also gulls, dogs and other critters. Sometimes the source is human, such as sewage from a boat or septic system or broken sewer line or sewage overflow. Scientists in recent years have discovered some E. coli that can multiply on its own, on sand and mud, without a warm blooded source at all.