Contact: Anne Perry Moore, 218-302-6605
Duluth, Minn. - On Wednesday, May 20, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency's (MPCA) beach monitoring program staff will begin its seventh season of dipping sampling equipment into the water at 39 public access points along Lake Superior's North Shore. Staff will begin pre-season water testing at eight sites frequented by kayakers and other cold-water enthusiasts May 4.
"We're trying to keep beach-goers safe from harmful bacteria that can make them sick," said Heidi Bauman, MPCA Beach Program Coordinator. She said the program's goal is to, "ensure the public has a safe and healthy water experience by informing them about the possible risk of contracting water-borne diseases from exposure to contaminated waters."
Between May and September, MPCA staff collect 100-milliliter water samples from knee-high depths at beaches between Duluth and Hovland. The samples are sent to a Duluth laboratory to determine whether E. coli, or "indicator," bacteria related to water-borne diseases and human health risks exceed safe limits.
If rain or windy storms churn up the lake, E. Coli bacteria can be washed into the water or flushed out of the sediment. "These bacteria are visible only under a microscope," Bauman continued, "so the potential problem is not obvious. Swimmers can take precautions before heading into the water, however. If the weather was stormy during the past 24-48 hours, they should stay out of the water."
When the lab confirms indicator bacteria levels are high enough to possibly make people sick, MPCA staff quickly notify the public in three ways: They post signs advising "no water contact" at the affected beach; e-mail advisory alerts to Internet users who've signed up for the service at www.mnbeaches.org; and, record an updated message listing any site with an advisory on the beach program hotline at 218-725-7724.
During the six years of monitoring Lake Superior beaches, MPCA staff have posted 155 advisory signs at 31 of the program's then-40 sites. About one-half of the advisories occurred at just four beaches and 671 days were considered lost to recreational use.
Of the 625 beach water samples collected during 2008, 93.6 percent were below advisory levels for indicator bacteria. "Despite those statistics, it's important to note eight of the monitored swimming beach areas were unaffected by illness-causing bacteria," Bauman said, "and 36 of the 40 sites have averaged one or fewer advisory postings per year." She added, "As far as we know, no related illnesses have ever been reported to county health departments since we began monitoring."
Currently, Minnesota does not require water testing at all public beaches. As a result, related water sampling and announcements of unsafe swimming conditions are inconsistently issued. The federal Beach Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act, an amendment to the Clean Water Act, calls on Minnesota and other states with coastal waters to monitor water quality at public beaches and improve how they notify the public about health risks at beaches.
For more information about the beach program, call Heidi Bauman, MPCA Beach Program Coordinator, at 218-302-6607, toll-free at 1-800-657-3864 or e-mail her at email@example.com.