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Making sure Oakland beaches, waters are safe


By Lisa Brody


Michigan summers. For those of us who endure frozen Michigan winters, we live for these brief months of idyllic days with azure skies, warm breezes, green tree-lined roads, and most especially, time spent at lakes and beaches.


Who doesn't love dipping their toes into one of Michigan's lakes? And swimming in a Michigan lake, whether one of the five Great Lakes or one of the thousand of inland lakes, is a unique pleasure that helps make us “Pure Michigan,” as the travel slogan perfectly captures it.


However, sometimes beneath the pristine waters, invisible pathogens can live and multiply, posing a danger that can turn a perfect respite into a potential sick day, which is why various government offices sample water quality at beaches during the summer months.


While the water may look clean, simply looking at the water won't allow you to determine whether disease-causing microorganisms are present. Swimming in or coming into contact with contaminated water may result in several different types of waterborne illnesses. Swimming or playing in unsafe water may result in minor illnesses, such as a sore throat or diarrhea – but it might also result in more serious, even life-threatening illnesses.


Recreational water illnesses are caused by germs spread by swallowing or having contact with contaminated lakes, rivers or ponds that result in a variety of infections affecting gastrointestinal systems, skin, ears, eyes, or respiratory systems. Children, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems are most susceptible to waterborne illnesses.


According to Michigan's Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE), there are 1,235 public beaches in Michigan, and 575 private beaches, but many more lakes, and there is a long-running debate as to whether Michigan or Minnesota has the most inland lakes. Michigan Lake Info counters EGLE with a likely more accurate estimate of over 11,000 lakes, quoting J.E. Breck of the Fisheries Department of Michigan's Department of Natural Resources, who wrote in 2004, “There have been several attempts to count or compile a master list of lakes in Michigan. The Michigan Lakes and Streams Directory of 1941 reported that there were 6,454 water bodies “large enough to be lakes.”... Before counting the number of lakes one must decide on the definition of the term “lake.” Brown wrote that he used 'the definition of Forel, the founder of modern limnology, who described a lake as ‘a body of standing water occupying a basin and lacking continuity with the sea.’ According to this definition all standing waters are lakes regardless of size, depth or origin. Ponds, bogs, swamps, reservoirs, etc. are just special kinds of lakes.' Brown used the best available maps of the time: county master-plan maps from the Department of Conservation and the newly available polyconic projection maps from the State Highway Department. Brown (1943a) reported a count of 11,037 lakes, of which over half were less than 10 acres in surface area. This appears to be the source of the widely reported 'fact' that Michigan has 11,000 lakes.”


“We (Oakland County) have more lakes than any other county in the state. There are more than 1,000 named and unnamed lakes in Oakland County,” Oakland County Water Resources Commissioner Jim Nash said. “There are just a ton of lakes. We have a lot of lakes and property values depend upon that.”


According to the Oakland County website, there are more than 1,400 lakes just in Oakland County, the county with the most lakes. Kent County, on the west side of the state, estimates they have 193 lakes; Livingston County, just 26 inland lakes, and Macomb County, 16 inland lakes. Counties across the state fit somewhere along the spectrum. The largest inland lake in Michigan is believed to be Houghton Lake, with a surface area encompassing 20,044 acres.


Nash pointed out that many people who live on lakes coordinate and have lake improvement boards, which are similar to home owner associations, with their goals being to manage the lake in the best interests of the residents around the lake. Currently, Oakland County has 46 lake improvement boards established to address relevant lake improvement issues, including the oversight of aquatic weed control programs, nuisance control and other educational activities. In Bloomfield Township, Forest Lake, Gilbert Lake, Island Lake, Lower Long Lake, Meadow Lake, Orange Lake, Upper Long Lake and Wabeek Lake all have established lake improvement boards.


“It costs money, but they are worth it,” Nash said. “They watch out for all these problems.”


To assist the residents on their lake improvement board, each one has a county commissioner assigned as well as someone from the water resources commissioner's office.


At the state level, Nash or a designee from his office is a member of the state-designated lake improvement boards in Oakland County.


According to Molly Rippke, specialist in rivers, lakes and beaches for EGLE, “In Michigan we have a water quality issue that is E. coli-based on its risks to health. It's definitely not the most dangerous pathogen out there, but we sample for E. coli because it's cheap and easy, and it's a pretty reliable way to see the risk for human health.”


EGLE advisory fact sheets note that “E. coli bacteria do not survive long in water. Factors such as wind and wave action, as well as ultraviolet light from the sun help to reduce the level of bacteria...It is a common misconception that if one area of the lake is contaminated, then the whole lake is contaminated...Two beaches on opposite ends of a lake that have different on-shore conditions will not have the same bacteria levels… Epidemiological studies of fresh water bathing beaches have established a direct relationship between the density of E. coli in water and the occurrence of swimming-associated gastroenteritis.”


Rippke said E. coli testing is also done because the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends that it be done. According to the EPA, as of December 2021, “The BEACH Act authorized the EPA to award grants to help states, tribes, and territories to develop and implement their beach monitoring and notification programs. States use the grant funds to operate beach monitoring and notification programs to protect the public at the beach. The type of activities funded include: collecting and analyzing water samples to determine whether they protect public health and to ensure that they do not exceed water quality standards; notifying the public if water quality standards are exceeded; and maintaining state databases of beach water quality and advisory information. To be eligible for BEACH Act grants, states and territories must have coastal and Great Lakes recreational waters adjacent to coastal beaches or similar points of access used by the public. Under the BEACH Act, the EPA can also award grants to eligible tribes. Currently, 38 states, territories, and tribes receive BEACH Act grants (thirty states, five territories, and three tribes).”


There are definitely more dangerous pathogens out there, Rippke said. “We've got cryptosporidium, cholera, giardiasis, campylobacteriosis, scabies, and worm infections. They can lead to gastroenteritis, with diarrhea and vomiting. There's E. coli HO157 – that's really dangerous, like with romaine lettuce. There are different strains and varieties. A lot of times it isn't identified what makes you sick. It's just a catch-all.”


EGLE advises water samples to be taken one foot below the surface in water that is between three and six feet in depth.


According to the United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the top 10 causes of recreational water outbreaks include: Shigella, Norovirus; E. coli; Cryptosporidium; Avian schistosomes; Giardia; Leptospira; algal blooms; Plesiomonas; and Campylobacter.


Cryptosporidium, or Crypto, is a microscopic parasite that causes the diarrheal disease cryptosporidosis, which can infect humans and animals. The parasite has an outer shell that allows it to survive outside the body for long periods of time. Crypto is most commonly spread in drinking water and recreational water, and is one of the most frequent causes of waterborne disease among humans in the United States.


Giardia, another microscopic parasite, is found in surfaces or in soil, food or water that has been contaminated with feces from infected humans or animals.


Shigellosis is an infectious disease that may cause diarrhea, fever and stomach cramps that start a day or two after being exposed to the bacteria shigella. The diarrhea is often bloody. Severe infection with a high fever may be associated with seizures in children less than two-years-old. Still others infected may have no symptoms at all and can pass the bacteria on to others.


Norovirus is a particularly contagious virus that can infect anyone through food or water, or by touching contaminated surfaces. The virus causes the infected person's stomach and/or intestines to become inflamed, leading to stomach pain, nausea, diarrhea or vomiting.


Another common problem associated with natural water is swimmer's itch, or cercarial dermatitis. Swimmer's itch is considered an aquatic nuisance disease caused by an allergic reaction to specific parasites found in certain birds, mammals and snails. Anyone who swims or wades in natural water may be at risk. While not contagious, swimmer's itch may cause temporary tingling, burning or itching of the skin. It's advisable to rinse off well after swimming in lakes and ponds.


The Oakland County Health Division recommends swimmers avoid areas where swimmer's itch is a known problem or where signs have been posted warning of unsafe water; avoid swimming in marshy areas where snails are commonly found; and to towel dry or shower immediately after leaving the water. Health experts also recommend that you don't attract birds by feeding them in areas where people are swimming.


In order to determine if water is safe for swimming or other recreational uses, the Oakland County Health Division has been testing more than 101 beaches this summer at 68 different lakes for E. coli levels. Unlike recent strains of E. coli, such as the strain affecting romaine lettuce and other food, wreaking havoc on some consumers, most types of E. coli are relatively harmless. And, because E. coli is a naturally occurring bacteria in warm-blooded animals, the presence of E. coli in water serves as a good indicator of the water quality.


Water collection and beach surveying by the Oakland County Health Division is done by student interns hired for the summer. Water at each of the beaches included in the program is tested on a weekly basis, measuring for E. coli levels. As an indicator, if E. coli is present, other, more harmful and harder to detect organisms may be present, said Mark Hansell, public health chief of Environmental Health Services with the Oakland County Health Division.


“We have a basic formula of 48 public beaches that we do every year,” Hansell said. “Those are the truly public beaches that are parks, that people pay to swim at. Then we round out our sampling with some public-neighborhood or homeowner association beaches. There are 50 to 60 of those.


“We know we have about 200 known beaches in Oakland County, so we rotate those in,” he said. “It takes about five years to cover them all. We take into account requests for a beach and add them the next year, or soon as possible.”


This year, the department has six student interns that split the 101 beaches, testing each of them a minimum of once a week. Hansell said if there is a closure, they will test that beach once a day until it can reopen. Beach testing in Oakland County began the first week of June and will continue through the second week of August.


“If there are any beaches that are closed, we will continue to test them until they all reopen, because the weather can still be warm,” he said. The primary reason they stop when they do is because their interns return to school.


Hansell said they encourage those neighborhood or homeowner association beaches that they are not yet testing to sample their beaches themselves. Oakland County Health Department makes it easy, and relatively affordable, by offering a beach kit for a small fee of $12.


“When we do an event, we take three samples from a swim area – left, right and center,” Hansell explained. The beach kit comes with three bottles and instructions on how to do it.


“We encourage you to do it more than once, ideally once per week,” he said. “We do the analysis and calculation for you of the water testing, and we relay the information.”


Monitored beaches must meet a one day standard of less than 300 colonies of E. coli per 100 milliliters of water, and a 30-day geometric average standard of 130 colonies per 100 milliliters. If a beach doesn't meet the water quality standard, it is closed until levels fall, often within 24 hours.


“When there is a closure, it can last a day – or a couple of weeks,” Hansell said. “But most are resolved within a day or two, and most are triggered by a rain event.”


Tom Barnes, division director of environmental services for Macomb County Health Department, acknowledges that “Macomb County is not known for our inland lakes.” His staff of six plus summer interns sample the three beaches at Lake St. Clair and Stony Creek Metropark as well as “other little pockets,” such as New Baltimore Walter and Mary Burke Park Beach and St. Clair Shores Memorial Park Beach, each Monday and Wednesday from early May until Labor Day, “to have a baseline for the season. We go out early in the morning, and have to resample if there's a high hit.”