Chesterton Tribune

Officials step back from reliance on E coli tests, look to alternatives to predict beach contamination

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The state is now giving Northwest Indiana beach municipalities and county agencies more flexibility to determine when to close Lake Michigan beaches for swimming, due largely to a concern that the previous method of testing based on the E. coli bacteria may not be the most reliable.

The local governments that will now decide on their own when to close a beach are Dune Acres and Ogden Dunes, as well as agencies in Lake and LaPorte counties.

Meanwhile, the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, which doesn’t need to follow the state directive, is changing its beach monitoring and public notification policy as well. It will now use E. coli test results in combination with environmental conditions, such as rainfall, winds, and reports of combined sewer overflows, to determine if a contamination or high counts of E. coli are likely to affect swimming water.

The change in policy has prompted a rebuttal from the Save the Dunes Council, which says that beach testing and public notification should be uniform in keeping with a 2004 beach plan that was prepared after extensive public input.

Up until now, the Indiana Department of Environmental Management required automatic closure of a beach if a water sample exceeded the federal E. coli standard of 235 cfu. With the new policy, IDEM is calling for beach water to be tested for E. coli five to seven days per week, with local governmental entities issuing a public advisory if there is an exceedance. But rather than automatically close the water to swimming, beach managers will decide if a closure is necessary.

“This is an example of an area where the state needs to step back and give local entities a chance to decide what is best for their communities,” said IDEM Commissioner Thomas Easterly.

The problem, according to both the IDEM and the National Lakeshore, is the reliance on E. coli, an indicator of fecal contamination. The E. coli analysis takes 16 to 24 hours with the current technology. By the time an analysis is finished, the water is often suitable for swimming, but the beach can remain closed, “causing an undue closure as well as unnecessary economic hardship for businesses in that area,” states an IDEM release.

An analysis titled “Thinking Differently about E. Coli,” written by Wendy Smith, education coordinator at the Great Lakes Research and Education Center, says that researchers have found that E. coli “may not always be an effective indicator of water quality.” While E. coli is found in the intestines of warm-blooded animals, scientists have found that E. coli can persist and possibly thrive in many other natural environments.

As an example, Smith cites the presence of E. coli in soils and sediments where there is no significant human fecal input. She also cites studies by the U.S. Geology Survey Lake Michigan Ecological Research Station that found that bacteria harbored in beach sand may persist longer than in water, and that E. coli counts were higher in the nearshore sand and submerged sand than in the beach water. In one study, a the count was 4,000 cfu on a Chicago beach compared to only 43 cfu in the water.

“These naturally occurring reservoirs of E. coli exist in the seeming absence of fecal material and cause one to question E. coli’s suitability as an indicator of fecal contamination. In many cases, today’s beach managers must close their beaches because of the presence of naturally occurring E. coli despite the fact that the water is actually uncontaminated,” Smith wrote.

Smith’s article notes that researchers continue to study alternative indicators of fecal contamination, rapid testing techniques and models that can be used to predict real-time water quality. In one near-real time model, Dr. Richard Whitman, chief scientist at the USGS LMERS, uses a system that principally involves the volume and water quality of Burns Ditch and lake conditions to predict the water quality at the West Beach area.

“Indiana Dues National Lakeshore has some of the cleanest beaches in southern Lake Michigan,” Whitman said.

In her article, Smith suggested turning the focus on the sources of the actual sewage, not E. coli levels. Among those sources are combined sewer overflows, which occur during heavy rains when sewage treatment facilities cannot accommodate the high volumes. More than 686 million gallons of untreated sewage flowed into Indiana’s Lake Michigan tributaries due to CSOs in the summer of 2004.

“The key to staying out of contaminated water is to avoid swimming after heavy rain events when CSOs are likely to occur and to watch for CSO announcements,” Smith’s article states.

Other suggestions in Smith’s article are to avoid feeding seagulls or otherwise attracting gulls to the beach, due to the high concentration of E. coli associated with gull feces. Another suggestion is for citizens to reduce their water use during heavy rain events.


The Save the Dunes Council has written both the IDEM and Gov. Mitch Daniels urging that the state not proceed with its new policy, but to stick with the uniform beach closing and public notification policy as established in the 2004 Indiana Beach Plan.

That plan cost more than $50,000 and was developed over the course of three years with numerous public input, according to Save the Dunes.

“IDEM is ultimately trying to blur the meaning of advisories and minimizing the potential health risks to the recreational beach users by hiding behind the lack of rapid monitoring data turnaround and the often questioned efficiency of E. coli as an indicator,” said Jennifer Gadzala, a Save the Dunes Council board member.

The Indiana beach plan is an outgrowth of the federal BEACH Act of 2000, which was an amendment to the Clean Water Act.

“Substantial public money has been spent to implement the Act, which may be wasted if this new IDEM policy is implemented,” Gadzala said.

“We think IDEM’s new proposal reverses the progress we have made and ignores the public input which went in to the 2004 Indiana Plan right at the verge of the 2005 swimming season,” said Save the Dunes Executive Director Tom Anderson.


Posted 5/31/2005