Beach Health & Water Quality

Frequently Asked Questions

Why is the beach closed today?

What is E. Coli?

How is the beach water tested?

What do the monitoring test results mean?

How do the bacteria get into the water?

How can we keep our beaches clean?



Why is the beach closed today?

Millions of people in the Great Lakes region are hitting the beach each year-but red flags and "no swimming" signs often crush hopes for a leisurely day spent at the water's edge. While there are a number of reasons to shut down beaches for the public, including dangerous waves or eroding dunes, the principal cause for beach closings and advisories is water pollution caused by elevated levels of bacteria. The presence of certain bacteria such as E. coli indicates the presence of human or animal wastes in the water. If bacteria counts are high enough that there is a risk of illness, a beach closing or advisory is issued.

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What is E. Coli?

Escherichia coli (or E. coli for short) is a common bacterium that lives in human and animal intestines, where it is present in large numbers. There are hundreds of E. coli strains and most are relatively harmless, causing illnesses such as traveler's diarrhea only when consumed in exceedingly high numbers. A notorious exception is E. coli strain 0157:H7, an emerging pathogen that produces a powerful toxin and can cause severe illness.

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How is the beach water tested?

The most basic test for microbial contamination is the test for total coliform bacteria. Total coliforms include bacteria found in human and animal waste (fecal coliforms) as well as bacteria that occur naturally in water and soil. Total coliform (TC) counts give a general indication of the sanitary condition of the water.

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What do the monitoring test results mean?

When bacteria levels have risen to unacceptable levels, a beach advisory or closing will be issued. The Great Lakes states and provinces all adhere to similar but slightly different bacterial water quality standards. Nevertheless, all bacterial water quality standards are based on estimates that ensure a low risk of illness in people. For example, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) estimates that, at concentrations of 126 E. coli per 100 ml, 8 of every 1,000 swimmers will become ill.

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How do the bacteria get into the water?

Any transport that helps to carry sewage and wastes to lakes contributes to pollution problems with pathogens. Sewage treatment plant effluent, for example, is often directly disposed of in rivers or streams. Storm sewers carry dog and cat feces off sidewalks and city streets and into streams. Improperly sited or maintained septic systems may discharge pathogens to underlying groundwater. In numerous locations, pipes dispose raw sewage into the lakes. Cattle and other domesticated animals can void feces directly in streams or lakes, as do wild animals and birds. Manure can contribute pathogens to surface water via runoff and erosion.

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How can we keep our beaches clean?

1. Identify Pollution Sources

An important part of curbing beach and water pollution is to find out where it's coming from. Then people can start doing something about it. Communities or citizen groups can draft appropriate policies and take necessary action.

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2. Stopping Sewage Overflows

Smart and controlled development ensures that sewer systems have enough capacity to handle the wastes of new households and businesses.

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3. Curbing Pollution at home

During storms, delay activities that require a lot of water, such as doing laundry, washing dishes, or sprinkling the lawn.

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4. Being a Responsible Beachgoer

Plan ahead and bring a trash bag with you on your next trip. Many beaches now require that all visitors take home everything they bring, including their trash.

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5. Eliminating Boating Waste

When you go boating, don't empty your waste into the water.

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