Bacteria counts at Great Lakes beaches often exceed national safety standards, study shows

The millions of people going to a Great Lakes beach might not see and probably don’t want to think about the E. coli bacteria present in the freshwater system’s near-shore waters. But the bacteria are there — and sometimes at counts that exceed a standard for swimmer safety set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Bacteria counts, in fact, are more likely to be higher on a beach in the Great Lakes than in any other coastal region of the country, according to “Testing the Waters,” a June report by the Natural Resources Defense Council. The study was based on a survey of nearly 3,500 beaches in 30 different states.
Thirteen percent of the water samples taken at Great Lakes beaches exceed the Beach Action Value, the EPA’s most protective benchmark for swimmer safety. That compares to the national average of 10 percent.
Karen Hobbs, co-author of the study’s Great Lakes section, cites a number of reasons why communities and states struggle to protect beach water quality: for example, the loss of streams and wetlands (“nature’s sponges” that remove pollutants and retain stormwater) and outdated wastewater systems used by large metropolitan areas near the lakes.
She adds that the problem could only worsen with the region’s changing climate.
If, as predicted, extreme storms become more frequent and intense, there could be more incidents of water systems being overwhelmed and raw sewage and storm runoff flowing into the Great Lakes.


“Testing the Waters” notes, too, that the problem of beach-water contamination is not spread equally among the eight Great Lakes states.


In Michigan and Minnesota, respectively, only 6 percent and 8 percent of the water samples from the states’ beaches failed to meet the EPA benchmark. In contrast, Ohio ranked last among the 30 states. More than one-third of the samples from its beaches were above the Beach Action Value. 

“Lake Erie is the shallowest of the Great Lakes, and all of that water just sits there,” Hobbs says in explaining the high failure rate for Ohio.

The state also has lost 90 percent of its wetlands (second-highest rate in the nation), has a large amount of agricultural runoff, and has coastal cities with inadequate infrastructure for handling wastewater and stormwater.

But some promising new practices to better protect water quality are also coming from Ohio. For example, in a first legislative step to curb nutrient runoff from the state’s farms (a cause of algal blooms in Lake Erie), SB 150 was signed into law this year. It requires farmers, starting in 2017, to be trained and certified before applying fertilizer to their land.

Meanwhile, under a consent decree with the U.S. EPA, the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District isinvesting in a $3 billion, 25-year plan to reduce raw sewage discharges from 4.5 billion gallons a year to 494 million gallons. The plan includes the construction of large-scale tunnels and improvements to existing treatment plants.

It also calls for a greater use of “green infrastructure” tools — such as rain gardens, green roofs and permeable pavements that, as Hobbs says, “capture the rain where it falls.” In Wisconsin, increased use of green infrastructure is central to the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District’s goal of having no sewer overflows by 2035.

At the state level, Illinois lawmakers approved a bill (SB 2780) this year expanding the types of loans that can be issued through the Clean Water Revolving Fund. The aim of the measure is to encourage local investments in green-infrastructure projects and water efficiency.
Stateline Midwest ~ July/August 20141.54 MB