September 21, 2014

Area beaches test positive for E. coli

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            ARENAC COUNTY — Beaches throughout Arenac County have tested positive for elevated levels of E. coli bacteria, and swimmers are being advised to avoid them.

            According to Environmental Health Supervisor Doug Fitzgerald with the Central Michigan District Health Department, the beaches with advisories posted are Hammel Beach Road, Singing Bridge Beach, Cemetery Beach, Foster Road Beach and Bessinger Road Beach. While they are not closed to the public, he said legally swimmers must be made aware that testing has found bacteria levels above the Environmental Protection Agency’s safe levels.

            He said if more than 300 E. coli colonies per 100 mL of water is found in a single sampling, or if samples average above 130 colonies per mL over a 30-day period, a notice must be posted at the beaches.  He pointed out that does not necessarily mean the water is entirely tainted, as each sampling is done by taking a minimum of three water samples from several points on the beach and averaging out the E. coli levels.

            “It’s not unusual to have one of those three samples throw you above the 300 colonies per 100 mL,” Fitzgerald said. “Two of them may be relatively low, but the third is elevated enough to get the mean above 300 colonies. So it’s an advisory, and we let the swimmer make their own decision if they want to deal with the risk or not.”

            Fitzgerald said the Singing Bridge Beach, for example, gets sampled at seven different points, each 30 inches into the water. These include near the Whitney Drain and the Department of Natural Resources’ public access, as well as closer to the borders of the beach property.

            The CMDHD posts advisories at http://www.deq.state.mi.us/beach/. While the sampling is worth taking into account, Fitzgerald said it is not necessarily a good judge of the broader Saginaw Bay.

            “If you were to ingest the water, then you’re certainly at risk of an infection,” he said. “But we’re sampling 100 mL out of the Saginaw Bay. It’s certainly like sampling a very small amount of water, and saying that is representative of the rest of the water in the Saginaw Bay is misleading for sure.”

            The sampling continues throughout the summer, and if levels come down, beaches will have their advisories removed, Fitzgerald said. The cause of the E. coli is still a mystery, he added, as it could come from any number of sources.

            He said it could be water fowl, such as ducks and gulls, fecal matter from farm animals that has gotten into the drain systems, poor or damaged septic systems along the waterfront or drains, or even E. coli coming in from Lake Huron. Fitzgerald pointed out that after heavy rainfall and strong northeast winds, the E. coli levels along the beaches tend to spike. No funding to test the E. coli itself to see which species it comes from has been made available, he added.

            “It could be water fowl that causes the elevated E. coli,” Fitzgerald said. “There are so many sources — it’s hard to pinpoint just one. Up at the Singing Bridge, there’s the Whitney Drain that drains into the bay in that location, so there’s a lot of agricultural operations that go along that drain. Even outside of Arenac County, up north there’s some heavy agricultural use, and that could certainly be influencing it during spring runoff.”

            Due to the size of the lakes, Fitzgerald said there is no way to remove the E. coli. Instead, he said the CMDHD would continue to monitor the problems and try and get grant money to study the problem and educate the public. Helping farmers keep their livestock away from drains, making sure storm sewers and unsanitary water stay separate, and making sure structures have good and well-placed septic systems are all vital, he added.

            “I think if you start working on a few of those, you can get levels down to where we don’t have to post beaches,” he said.

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