Traverse City Record-Eagle

November 17, 2013

Downstate takes area beach monitoring money

By BRIAN McGILLIVARY bmcgillivary@record-eagle.com
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY A downstate Republican's $100,000 pet project for his neighborhood beach will starve more than 30 programs around the state that monitor beaches for harmful levels of E. coli bacteria.

The Watershed Center Grand Traverse Bay is among agencies cut from the funding loop. The nonprofit that works with county health departments relied on state funding for the last 10 years to monitor a dozen Lake Michigan beaches in Grand Traverse, Leelanau, and Benzie counties.

The Watershed Center received a $17,000 state grant this year to conduct weekly water quality tests at beaches.

"That's our entire budget. We don't have any other funding to do it," said Sarah U'Ren, program director for the Watershed Center. "So at this point, it's not happening."

Rep. Anthony Forlini, R-Harrison Township, inserted one line in a state budget act that directed the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to give $100,000 of its $152,000 beach monitoring funding to Macomb County for the Lake St. Clair Metropark. The funding will allow park officials to purchase equipment that will instantly test lake water for E. coli, a bacteria present in human and animal feces.

The current practice is to take water from the beach and have it tested by a lab, a process that takes about 24 hours, U'Ren said.

Area lawmakers said they weren't aware Forlini and Rep. Eileen Kowall, an Oakland County Republican and chairwoman of the DEQ appropriations committee, had redirected the funds.

"It's some of the things northern Michigan is always battling," said Sen. Howard Walker, a Traverse City Republican. "The numbers are higher downstate and we always have to stand up and make some noise to get our share."

Republican Rep. Greg MacMaster represents Antrim County, whose health department also lost funding for beach monitoring. MacMaster said he checked with Kowall who said the money was set aside for a pilot program to see if testing can be improved. MacMaster contends there would have been enough money if not for the federal sequestration, which cut funding across all federal programs.

But a Nov. 8 letter from the DEQ blames the cuts on Folini's budget requirement. U'Ren also disputed the federal funding question.

Neither Forlini nor Kowall referred to it as a pilot project in a May press release. Forlini said swimmers in Lake St. Clair deserve to immediately know if water there is contaminated, not a day later.

"This will provide a better quality of life to everyone in southeast Michigan, especially those that live and play on Lake St. Clair,” Kowall said in the release.

The DEQ distributed its remaining funds mostly to to other downstate communities because they have the most problem beaches. Now swimmers in northern Michigan may no longer know if their beach is safe unless area health departments can find other sources of funding.

"Budgets are tight all over, so I don't know if local funding sources will materialize," said Thomas Buss, director of environmental health for the Grand Traverse County Health Department.

Buss said his office frequently fields calls from would-be tourists who want to know about beach water quality, and the department's beach-monitoring web-page is the most visited page on the department's website.

The testing program over the last 10 years also encouraged communities to pass ordinances to protect the waters and make improvements to storm sewer systems that drain into the Great Lakes, Buss said.

That testing data has been key to obtaining more than $2 million in grants for water quality improvements, U'Ren said.

U'Ren sent letters to area lawmakers informing them of the problem. U'Ren said she doubts anything can be changed by next summer, but she hopes measures will be taken to prevent similar occurrences.

Both Walker and MacMaster said there remains a chance the state might find more money.

"I'd never say never," Walker said. "It's something we can continue to work on. We just might need to pound the table a little bit harder."