Beach monitoring program kicks off for summer in DuluthMinnesota’s effort to check for harmful bacteria at Lake Superior beaches will kick off on schedule today at eight Duluth sites popular with kayakers and other water enthusiasts.
By: John Myers, Duluth News Tribune
Minnesota’s effort to check for harmful bacteria at Lake Superior beaches will kick off on schedule today at eight Duluth sites popular with kayakers and other water enthusiasts.
The program, now in its ninth year, has been handed off from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to the Minnesota Department of Health, but appears to be back to normal after an uncertain year in 2010 when beach testing didn’t start until August.
The first sites to be tested are along Park Point, the Duluth Lakewalk and Brighton Beach. Testing will begin at a total of 40 sites along Duluth waterfronts and in Lake and Cook counties starting June 7, said Amy Westbrook, district epidemiologist for the Minnesota Department of Health.
Each beach is tested at least once a week under the program aimed at swimmers, anglers, waders, kayakers and others who come in direct contact with the water. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency pays for the effort, and each state administers it. The state has contracted with the University of Minnesota Duluth’s Natural Resources Research Institute.
If the tests show elevated levels of E. coli, the beaches are posted with a “No Water Contact Recommended” sign and listed on the website mnbeaches.org. Elevated E. coli levels could signal other, more dangerous bacteria that can make people sick if water is swallowed.
“It’s intended to give you an estimate of risk to exposure, not really to E. coli itself but that’s an indicator to all sorts of things in the waste stream, human and animal organisms,” said Rich Axler, NRRI scientist.
The testing program has found Lake Superior waterfront areas are usually safe, while harbor sites have had a few issues.
In 2008, for example, 94 percent of the 625 water samples taken along Duluth and North Shore beaches showed very low bacteria levels. Most of the 6 percent of samples that showed elevated levels were taken at waterfront access points on the harbor side of Park Point.
Experts advise generally avoiding water contact in the harbor. They also suggest avoiding all areas after rain and wind rile up bacteria in the sediment or wash bacteria off land into the water.
The entire cost, about $200,000 over two years, is paid for by the federal government. But the program stumbled last year when the PCA couldn’t find staff or arrange a contractor to do the work until mid-August.
While DNA testing has traced a small amount of bacteria to humans, most bacteria found are from birds, with the vast majority from geese. Recent research also has determined that E. coli can grow and reproduce in sediment and in slime on rocks without ever being in a bird or animal.
Even though most of the bacteria is not human, that doesn’t mean it’s harmless. Little research has been conducted to determine whether avian diseases can be passed to people through contact with bacteria.