Signs advise swimmers that the Macomb County Health Department tests the waters at Veterans Memorial Beach in St. Clair Shores twice per week for E. coli levels. As of press time July 13, the beach was deemed safe for swimming.

Signs advise swimmers that the Macomb County Health Department tests the waters at Veterans Memorial Beach in St. Clair Shores twice per week for E. coli levels. As of press time July 13, the beach was deemed safe for swimming.

Photo by Kristyne E. Demske

Beach closures prompt questioning of how lakes, sewers are maintained

By: Kristyne E. Demske, Nick Mordowanec | C&G Newspapers | Published July 18, 2018

 Macomb County stopped testing the waters at Blossom Heath Beach in St. Clair Shores after two straight years of closures. The beach is currently closed.

Macomb County stopped testing the waters at Blossom Heath Beach in St. Clair Shores after two straight years of closures. The beach is currently closed.

Photo by Kristyne E. Demske

LANSING — Amid a blistering summer swelter, there has been something affecting Michiganders statewide: the number of park and beach closures as a result of abnormal levels of toxicity.

Bacteria is so prevalent that the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, or MDEQ, posts consistent updates of statewide closures and advisories. On July 13, for example, that number was 22, and it encompassed regions as local as Oakland County and as far as the northern tip of the western Upper Peninsula.

In Macomb County, levels of E. coli bacteria — which lives in the digestive systems of humans and warm-blooded animals and is often found in sewage — are monitored by the Macomb County Health Department at six separate public bathing locations, with twice-per-week testing samples. The Michigan Public Health Code determines bacterial limits, with higher limits ultimately leading to closures.

The health department states that risks associated with swimming in water full of bacteria include sore throats and diarrhea, or possibly more serious illnesses.

State Rep. Peter Lucido, R-Shelby Township, grew up in St. Clair Shores. He said the issue of contaminated water has existed for about 50 years, and the situation has become dire.

“This is going on too damn long,” Lucido said. “This is something I’ve got to see through. … If we allow ourselves to continue down this path, we are creating doom for our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren — for our future generations.”

Due to the state Legislature being out of session, on Aug. 15, Lucido plans to introduce House Bill 6278, requiring all municipalities statewide to completely separate their sewage systems from stormwater systems by Dec. 31, 2022.

He said the bill is a byproduct of inconsistency in Macomb County. Some municipalities have not separated their sewer systems, he said, while others were ordered to separate.

It’s something taxpayers could have bought into three decades ago, Lucido said, with no-interest or low-interest loans. Or, communities could have bonded and paid it back over time. Instead, as he put it, the majority suffers, and counties like Macomb can’t blame their neighbors.

“I can’t look at my sister or brother county and say you are putting more gallons of raw sewage in our Lake St. Clair,” he said. “The DEQ has allowed it to continue, because it’s legal to discharge into retention basins to treat. How they treat it is another story.

“But we are culprits too,” Lucido said. “We are naturally separated, and until we fully separate, we can’t start pointing our finger to the west of us.”

Last September, Lucido held a water town hall meeting and invited spokespeople from the MDEQ onstage to answer how the sewer process can continue as is, with the MDEQ reportedly responding by saying it’s a financial issue. Basically, money has to come from somewhere.

At press time, the MDEQ could not be reached for comment.

As Macomb County touts itself as a Blue Water Economy, Lucido wonders how blue it actually is if residents can’t utilize the actual water — be it for swimming, recreation or business. Polluted water affects gas stations, liquor stores, boat manufacturers and lakeside restaurants — even when people spend “millions” to live near the water, Lucido noted.

“The Blue Water Economy is not so blue as I see if you’re shutting beaches down, because your water or your beach is not suitable health-wise for humans. … People spend a lot of money to live on the water,” he said. “It’s a dream for everybody, including myself. How beautiful is it if you can’t swim in it, or fish in it, or you might have a problem drinking it in the future?”

Mark Balon, chair of the St. Clair Shores Waterfront Environmental Committee, said that the top problem causing beach closures is geese.

“The Environmental Committee believes that the biggest issue that we have is near-shore pollution,” he said. “There (are) other forces of it, overflows and things like that, but those don’t happen that often. It’s the continual aspect with the geese that are pooping on the shore and the seaweed that comes in and holds it there.

“It becomes anaerobic conditions where no oxygen can get into it, and the fecal matter, it becomes pollution.”

St. Clair Shores Parks and Recreation Director Greg Esler said that he has had many meetings and has attended many workshops over the years regarding water quality.

“If you look at the history of the beach closings, a lot of it is related to a quick amount of rainfall in a short period of time, and it seems like the beaches then close,” he said. 

Esler agreed that the large increase in the goose population has contributed to the beach closures.  

St. Clair Shores contracts five days per week with a company called Goose Works that brings dogs to the three lakefront parks, the golf course and the soccer complex at Civic Arena to deter the geese. 

“It’s been an effective mechanism to keep the geese away from the parks, but there’s still geese in the park. It’s been effective, but it’s not cheap,” he said.

The contract with Goose Works costs between $10,000 and $12,000 each year, he said. 

Swimmers can use the beach at Veterans Memorial Park, 32400 Jefferson Ave. in St. Clair Shores, which is monitored for E. coli levels twice per week by the Macomb County Health Department. The county stopped monitoring St. Clair Shores’ Blossom Heath Beach, 24800 Jefferson Ave., in 2012 because it had not been safe for swimming in the prior two years. At the time, county officials said the city could pay the $2,800 cost for the laboratory testing to continue to have the beach monitored, but the city declined.

“Veterans Memorial, we don’t have the great circulation, the wave action that takes the debris back to the lake,” Esler said. 

Nevertheless, he said that people still swim in the lake when the county deems it healthy. 

“When the health department tells us it’s safe … people will jump in there,” he said.

Balon said that the Waterfront Environmental Committee has sent multiple letters to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources asking for help mitigating the goose population, but its requests have been denied. 

“If we could really eliminate the geese, the water fowl, I think we would clean up at least 80 percent of the issue,” he said. 

He also suggested allowing residents to bring leashed dogs into the park, perhaps to a cordoned-off area near the water, to deter the geese from returning. 

Conversely, in Harrison Township, Lake St. Clair Metropark Operations Manager Joe Hall said this summer has been a fortunate one for swimmers.

He said officials from the Macomb County Health Department measured high levels of contamination during sampling on June 27. That resulted in a beach closure on June 28. It has been the sole beach closure thus far.

“It’s been awesome,” Hall said. “We’ve had a good year.”

Lucido said Lansing has kicked the can down the road for decades, discussing the problem but not finding any viable long-term solutions.

“I swam in that lake as a kid, and I fished in that lake as a kid,” Lucido said. “I spent every day in the water … and I ate the fish. 

“I wouldn’t touch a fish in that lake if you paid me. I don’t know what’s in that water. Someone has to make a stand. … If you can’t change the direction of the tide, you’re gonna get washed out.”