High bacteria levels lead to closure of Michigan beaches | News, Sports, Jobs
High bacteria levels lead to closure of Michigan beaches | News, Sports, Jobs

News photo by Courtney Boyd. Calm waters at Blair Street Park just before the rains on July 10, 2024. This is the view from the last known beach closure in Alpena County due to E. coli, which occurred in 2013.

ALPENA — Over the summer, beaches along the shores of Michigan’s Great Lakes and inland lakes were closed, most often due to high levels of Escherichia coli (E. coli) in the water.

As of 5 p.m. Wednesday, eight beaches in Arenac, Bay, Macomb, Oakland, Lenawee and Allegan counties were closed. Information about beach closures is regularly updated on BeachGuard, a website run by the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE).

Jeff Johnston, EGLE spokesman, said bacterial infections peak in the spring and summer, primarily due to thunderstorms and rainfall.

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

Johnston said there are many natural causes of high bacteria levels, such as waterfowl like geese and seagulls, faulty sewage systems and general stormwater caused by heavy rain. He said the water bodies tend to naturally break down the bacteria after entering, and within a few days the bacteria dilute and the water is safe to enter again.

Johnston said the closures themselves are decided by county health departments. Alpena County is served by the District 4 Health Department, which also serves Montmorency, Presque Isle and Cheboygan counties.

In the latter county, two beaches were recently closed for one to two days. Mullet Lake was one area that was closed until July 10. According to the local health department, the location is prone to high levels of bacteria.

“You have to have this perfect storm for everything to come together,” said Kevin Prevost, an environmental hygienist with the District’s Health Department 4. “Sea waves, water held back by the wall and large populations of waterfowl… When you add all of that together, we see these elevations.”

The District’s Health Department 4 covers four counties: Alpena, Montmorency, Presque Isle and Cheboygan. Prevost said the health department is focusing its testing efforts on the three counties that border Lake Huron, and the department will test certain beaches and inland lakes weekly for changes.

Prevost explained that sampling locations are pre-determined and three samples must be taken from that area. He said the samples are checked within six hours of being taken and must meet a certain “geometric mean” for the water to be classified as safe or unsuitable for swimming.

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

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

“We have been lucky, there have been very few incidents,” he said. “And inland (on the lake) there are hardly any problems.”

If there are further beach closures in Northeast Michigan, Johnston said beachgoers should take “appropriate precautions” and offers a few safety tips, such as:

∫ Do not enter the water if you are ill or have open wounds,

∫ Look for signs on beaches warning of bacterial contamination or other dangers.

∫ Wait a few days after rainfall to ensure that harmful bacteria are broken down and

∫ Shower after swimming.

“EGLE’s responsibility is to protect the natural environment and public health,” Johnston said. “We want everyone to leave their beach trip this summer feeling refreshed, happy and safe. The beach can be a wonderful place… If you are not prepared or make poor choices, the consequences can be dire. We want everyone to enjoy their beach trip 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 goal is to train the next generation of journalists and combat the creation of news deserts in rural areas.

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