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Seasonal beach monitoring begins with hope for future improvements

Michael Livingston

During the hot summer months - when tourism is high, and shores are packed - weekly beach monitoring asses if waters are safe to swim.

Eighteen beaches in Benzie, Grand Traverse, and Leelanau counties showed satisfactory water quality after test results were released for harmful levels of E. coli bacteria Thursday morning. This was the first of weekly testing that will occur every Wednesday until September 8.

This year marks the 21st anniversary of the beach monitoring program – a collaboration between the Watershed Center of Grand Traverse Bay, local governments, and nearby health departments.

Throughout the years, environmental health officials have identified trends that highlight the need for beach monitoring – and the resources necessary to keep beach goers safe.

Elevated E. coli levels indicates surface water fecal contamination which poses a threat to public health and can cause serious illness (especially in young children and people with compromised immune systems).

Dan Thorelle is director of environmental health at the Health Department of Northwest Michigan. He explained heavy rainfall flushes out the nearby storm drain system – and any animal waste that may be inside.

“It's not a matter of whether or not our infrastructure is working, because it’s doing what it’s intended to do,” Thorelle said. “The important thing is to do what we can to control and minimize, what's going out into the bay.”

Watershed Center Program Director Sarah U’Ren said supporting green infrastructure like rain gardens or infiltration trenches are one way to accomplish this. Installing expensive anti-microbial filters - like at East Bay Park - is another.

However, she and Thorelle agree beach monitoring is essential for maintaining public health.

Testing on Lake Michigan is financed through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) BEACH Act. In Michigan, the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) disperses the money to the health departments that line the shores.

In Traverse City, the Watershed Center contracts specialist at SOS Analytical to gather samples and run the tests.

“We talk to the health departments, and we say ‘ok, we have a limited amount of funds, what are your most important beaches on the Great Lakes that you want to have monitored,’” Watershed Center Program Director Sarah U’Ren said.

2021 beach monitoring will be conducted at the following beaches, 12 of which are paid for by the EGLE Grant. U’Ren said local governments and municipalities hire contractors to test four others.

EGLE Grant – Great Lakes Beaches (12 total, $7,500):

1. Empire Beach

2. Frankfort Beach

3. Northport Beach

4. Suttons Bay Beach

5. Suttons Bay Marina Park Beach

6. Greilickville Harbor Park (Elmwood Park)

7. West End Beach

8. Clinch Park

9. Bryant Park

10. East Bay Park (AKA Milliken Park)

11. Traverse City State Park

12. Acme Bayside Park

Great Lakes Beaches Monitored using Private Funds ($1,500 each)

13. Sayler Park (Acme Twp)

14. Volleyball Beach (Traverse City)

15. Senior Beach (Traverse City)

16. Sunset Park (Traverse City)

The remaining two are South Bar Lake in Empire and Beulah Beach – both are part of a separate group of inland beaches that are paid for by their respective local governments.

The technology, manpower and number of beaches tested on a given year depends on funding, U’Ren said. That funding has remained stagnant for several years.

“We apply for federal funds to monitor Great Lakes beaches and those are about the same amount of money every year,” EGLE Toxicologist Shannon Briggs said. “We depend on Congress and the EPA to determine how much Michigan gets. It's kind of out of our hands, we do the best with it that we can.”

After 20 years, beach monitoring in the Grand Traverse Bay still contends with a flaw.

“We've always known from the beginning is that we test on Wednesday. But we'll tell you Thursday if you should have been swimming on Wednesday,” U’Ren said.

The methods approved by the state - called the 18-hour Colilert test – requires time for the E. coli cells to incubate. Meaning the results can’t reach the public until the following day.

Briggs said a newer technology called Quantitative Polymerase Chain Reaction (qPCR) can produce results in less than half the time. Through state-level programs, qPCR is already being normalized around the state in places like Sleeping Bear Dunes.

“At the end of the day, it's about getting the results out fast,” Sleeping Bear Dunes biologist Chris Otto said. “In qPCR you examine the DNA (instead of culturing the bacteria). Basically, we go out and take a sample, and we can generate results in about three hours.”

The qPCR test is nowhere near as straightforward as the 18-hour Colilert test, Otto said. It requires expensive equipment, a dedicated laboratory, and trained specialists - not to mention the funding to make it all happen.

President of SOS Analytical Jack Nowland said the price per sample could more than double.

Despite this, as the technology becomes more widely accessible, U’Ren, Thorelle and Nowland agree qPCR may be the new standard in Traverse City in the next ten years.

“qPCR is a great, great tool. I think it could do a lot for us the potential for it is endless,” Nowland said.

In the meantime, officials warn beachgoers not to swim in the designated beaches after major rain events and sewage spills.

If test results show high bacteria levels, local Health Departments will post advisories at impacted beaches. They will be re-tested until results return to acceptable levels.

Weekly results become available Thursdays on the EGLE BeachGuard website, The Watershed Center Facebook page, the Grand Traverse County Health Department website, and the Benzie-Leelanau District Health Department website and Facebook page.

Michael Livingston is a senior at Central Michigan University majoring in Journalism and International Relations. He grew up in Hartland, a small town in Livingston County. After graduation in 2022, he aspires to take his reporting abroad as a correspondent.