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See a Beach-Quality Database: Heavy Rains Pollute Water

July 29, 2008

By Tina Lam, Detroit Free Press

Jul. 29–The summer’s heavy rains may have kept lawns a little greener, but they’ve made the water along Michigan’s beaches a little dirtier.

Michigan’s swim season is likely to have more beach closures than last summer as heavy rains have flushed sewage and wildlife feces into lakes and streams, raising the E. coli contamination counts that force beach closures, a new report suggests.

Statewide, 11 beaches are closed or under health warnings because of contamination, including two on Lake St. Clair.

Two Michigan beaches were among the 25 worst in the nation for the number of times water samples exceeded pollution limits, and a handful of state beaches were closed for more than a month last summer, according to a report by Clean Water Action and the Natural Resources Defense Council that was released Monday. The report was based on state testing data.

Among the worst beaches this year are four on Lake St. Clair:

–Crescent Sail Yacht Club in Grosse Pointe Farms — a private beach that has been closed for 48 days and was closed 78 days last year.

–Grosse Pointe Farms Pier Park — closed 27 days this year and 15 days in 2007. It is open to only city residents.

–Memorial Park in St. Clair Shores — closed 49 days so far this year and three days in 2007. –Blossom Heath in St. Clair Shores — closed 25 days this year and for 44 days last summer.

Metro Beach, a popular public beach in Harrison Township on Lake St. Clair, has remained clean; it was closed just one day this year and none last year.

In Oakland County, which has 192 beaches, 82 are monitored and 12 have been closed for at least one day. Scotch Lake’s beach is closed and has had eight days of closure this year.

The public beach on Belle Isle in Detroit hasn’t been monitored since 2005.

Elsewhere around the state, Singing Bridge Beach in Arenac County, just south of Tawas City on Lake Huron, has been under health advisories for 32 days so far this summer. Caseville County Park’s beach on Saginaw Bay in the Thumb has been under advisories for 13 days.

Henes Park Beach in Menominee County was closed 97 days last year, and Whites Beach in Arenac County was closed or under advisory warnings for 72 days in 2007, but neither has closed this year.

If beaches aren’t closed when high E. coli contamination is present, swimmers who swallow water can get sick and those with open sores could have them become infected. The bacteria can cause stomach cramping, diarrhea, vomiting, dehydration and kidney failure.

There are a number of ways to catalog troubled beaches, from the number of days they’re closed to the number of times that samples fail tests.

According to data in the report, last summer the beaches at Crescent Sail Yacht Club and Meinert County Park in Muskegon County each had 44% of their samples fail. Those were among the 25 worst beaches in the nation for the percentage of their samples that exceeded the permissible level of contamination.

Nationwide, the average was 5%.

E. coli contamination also can come from human feces washing into lakes through aging, overloaded sewer lines. Often, however, it’s a result of droppings from waterfowl like geese or fish, said Bob McCann, spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Quality.

“The fact is, some of this is nature,” he said. “Certain parts of the state are naturally going to have higher bacteria levels and frankly, there isn’t much we can do about it.”

At Blossom Heath on Lake St. Clair, geese are often the major source of contamination. On Monday, rubber wolves were in place on the beach to try to scare away the geese.

The wolves seem to be work.

Melissa Gersch, 26, of St. Clair Shores, wasn’t taking chances, though. Because the beach is closed one week, then open the next, Gersch is never sure how safe it is.

“I just put my feet in,” she said.

Contact TINA LAM at 313-222-6421 or tlam@freepress.com.

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