By VICKI URBANIK
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
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
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
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