Heat is on, but swim at own riskA federally funded beach monitoring program that usually starts looking for harmful bacteria in May along North Shore waterfronts still hasn’t started this summer.
By: Forum Newspapers, Lake County News Chronicle
A federally funded beach monitoring program that usually starts looking for harmful bacteria in May along North Shore waterfronts still hasn’t started this summer.
In April it was reported that the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency decided not to staff the beach monitoring program this year but was moving to find a private contractor to do the work.
PCA officials had hoped to start testing by mid-June but as summertime temperatures hit their highest – and at the peak of swimming, kayaking and wading season in the region – Lake Superior is not being tested.
“It’s taken a little longer than we expected. We hope to see it up and running within a couple weeks if there aren’t any glitches in the contracts,” said Pat Carey, program supervisor for the PCA’s Lake Superior Beach Monitoring Program.
The testing program has showed that Lake Superior waterfront areas are almost always safe.
In 2008, 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 and avoiding all areas after rain and wind storms rile up bacteria in the sediment or wash bacteria off land into the water.
The state is working to contract with the Natural Resources Research Institute in Duluth to test St. Louis County beaches and to contract with Lake and Cook counties for their beach testing.
“We have someone waiting who is capable; we can jump into it pretty fast,’’ said Rich Axler, NRRI senior research associate. “But we’re still waiting to get the paperwork worked out. We have to work through the grants administration bureaucracy, and that’s going to take time.’’
In the long run, Carey said the PCA hopes to hand the program off to the Minnesota Department of Health, where officials see a better fit. But it’s not clear whether that agency wants the job either.
The beach monitoring program started in 2003, with federal money paying for testing by PCA staff. The federal Environmental Protection Agency grant last year gave the state $206,000 for the beach program, which covered all the state’s costs.
The same federal money is available this year, and the program has run at essentially no cost to the state. The program already is funded for 2011 as well.
“It’s too bad that the money has been there and they still missed most of the summer,” Axler said.
But with state agencies cutting staff, and even though no state money was involved, some PCA officials balked at filling the beach monitoring position when the former coordinator, Heidi Bauman, moved last year to a new job in the agency. Instead of re-filling the position, the PCA looked to contract out the work.
“It is a good program, and it worked well for seven years, and all of the expenses are covered by the grant,” Carey said. “But we were looking longer-term on whether this was something we should be involved in. It’s not really an environmental issue; it’s a public health issue.”
In past years, testing started in early May at a handful of popular kayak-launching spots and then grew to 40 Lake Superior and harbor sites between Memorial Day and Labor Day, from Park Point to Grand Marais and beyond.
Each beach was tested at least once a week under the program that’s aimed at swimmers, anglers, waders, kayakers and others who come in direct contact with the water. The tests check for elevated levels of E. coli that might indicate the presence of harmful bacteria that could make people sick if they swallow water.
If unsafe levels of bacteria were found, a sign was posted at the beach and the PCA notified the media and the public until follow-up testing determined the water was safe. Results also were available on a website, www.mn beaches.org, and through an automated phone message service for anyone who wanted to subscribe.
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 on its own in sediment and in slime on rocks without ever being in a bird or animal.