Beach closings continue to drop

By: Julie Snyder | Mount Clemens - Clinton - Harrison Journal | Published September 25, 2013

 Farmington Hills resident Dinithi Elvitigala, 3, spent Labor Day weekend enjoying the sandy beaches of Lake St. Clair Metropark. The Harrison Township beach was open to swimmers every day this season.

Farmington Hills resident Dinithi Elvitigala, 3, spent Labor Day weekend enjoying the sandy beaches of Lake St. Clair Metropark. The Harrison Township beach was open to swimmers every day this season.

File photo by Erin Sanchez

HARRISON TOWNSHIP — Beach closures in Macomb County continue to drop, with this past swim season marking the lowest number of closures in recent years.

The Bathing Beach Monitoring Program conducted by the Macomb County Health Department shows that 2013 produced just 14 total days of closures for the county’s five beaches.

All of the closures occurred because bacteria levels exceeded the daily standards contained in the Michigan Public Health Code, according to Stephen Lichota, associate director of environmental health with the MCHD.

He said that the water quality at three bathing beaches on Lake St. Clair and two inland beaches at Stony Creek Metropark are monitored for E. coli several times a week each year. The monitoring begins in early April of each year and continues through the end of September.

“Last year, (all five beaches) were closed for just 17 days, and that was a particularly hot summer. We expected bacteria levels to be much higher,” said Lichota. “I think the downward trend (in the number of closures) is largely due to the county and the municipalities conducting more monitoring and addressing their sewer infrastructure and sanitary sewer overflows.”

This year and last also show substantial decreases from 2009, when there were 155 closures; 2010, when there were 109 closures; and 2001,  when there were 104 beach closures. Lichota said those numbers don’t include the closures at Blossom Heath Beach located on Jefferson in St. Clair Shores. Of the total 230 closures in 2011, 126 were at Blossom Heath due to consistently high E. coli counts. The beach has since been closed and hasn’t been monitored since 2011.

No instances of long-term contamination were recorded, according to a MCHD press release.

Lichota said officials with Macomb County’s Bathing Beach Monitoring Program test 100-millileter samples of water for bacteria, and they close beaches when samples show 300 or more E. coli colonies per sample, or if the 30-day average exceeds 130 colonies. These standards are set by the Michigan Public Health Code.

Beach closures became common occurrences starting in the mid-1990s and continued into the 2000s, with a number of instances of long-term closures lasting several weeks or more. Those long-term closures were indicative of unchecked problems with contaminated storm water, illicit sewage connections, municipal sewer infrastructure, and combined and sanitary sewer overflows.

E. coli is the name of a germ or bacteria that lives in the digestive tracts of humans and animals. There are many types of the bacteria; however, human or animal feces infected with E. coli sometimes get into lakes, pools and water supplies. People can become infected when a contaminated city or town water supply has not been properly treated with chlorine or when people accidentally swallow water while swimming in contaminated bodies of water. It can cause severe stomach cramping, nausea, bloody diarrhea or even kidney failure.

Lichota said much has been accomplished over the last two decades through collaboration between the health department, other Macomb County agencies, Oakland and St. Clair counties, and the involved municipalities to correct and improve water quality problems in the Clinton River and Lake St. Clair watersheds.

In one particular effort, the MCHD, with grant funding from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and in collaboration with municipal partners, undertook an Illicit Discharge Elimination Program (IDEP) that stopped the discharge of more than 87 million gallons of raw sewage per year to our surface water resources, according to the press release.

Lichota said the success of the efforts is evident in the reduction of beach closings and in the results of ongoing surface water quality monitoring by the health department, which has shown mitigated bacteria levels throughout the watershed.

“A lot of people are doing a lot of things to clean up the watershed and protect the lake. Even the youth are getting more knowledgeable about it,” Lichota said. “Yes, there are still problems; it’s not like the problem’s been solved.”

The three lake beaches in Macomb County are at Lake St. Clair Metropark, Walter and Mary Burke Park in New Baltimore and Veterans Memorial Park in St. Clair Shores. Veterans Memorial beach was closed five times this year, the beach in New Baltimore was closed eight times and Lake St. Clair Metropark’s beach was not closed.