Traverse City Record-Eagle

November 10, 2012

Great Lakes water-testing program may be in jeopardy


---- — TRAVERSE CITY-- Every Monday and Wednesday morning this past summer, a young woman waded into the Great Lakes waters of popular beaches and collected water samples that were later tested for the presence of E. Coli.

If the samples tested positive, a health advisory sign would alert swimmers to the possible health risk.

But at least some of the funding for the program is now in jeopardy. The money that paid for a good part of the monitoring was put on the chopping block, zeroed out in the presidential budget put together in March. When Congress couldn't come up with a budget agreement, they passed a "Continuing Resolution," which authorized — but didn't appropriate, funding for the program.

Now with the elections over, Washington will return to resolving the federal budget, said Shannon Briggs, a state Department of Environmental Quality toxicologist, whose job it is to oversee the beach monitoring program for the entire state.

Beach monitoring is important because swimmers can get sick from water-borne illnesses lurking in contaminated water, said Sarah U'Ren, program director at the Watershed Center Grand Traverse Bay, which manages the area's sampling program.

"The E. Coli we test for isn't the same E. Coli that you read about, the kind that can kill you," she said. "But it's an inexpensive test to do, and a good indicator that dangerous pathogens are present — pathogens that can cause severe vomiting and diarrhea. It hits people with compromised immune systems particularly hard. For example, if you're old or sick. If you have a cut on your foot, it could get infected."

The beach monitoring funds come from the BEACH Act, which provides Michigan with $274,000 annually. If the Environmental Protection Agency cuts the funds, the state will have to get by with $100,000 from the Clean Michigan Initiative, which is now dedicated to inland beach testing, Briggs said.

Bottom line, the state would see water monitoring sink from 400 Great Lakes and inland beaches to roughly 60 beaches. The cuts wouldn't affect water testing until the summer of 2014, Briggs said.

The EPA's funding for water monitoring in this area has ranged from $9,000 to $15,000, U'Ren said.

"I called (Michigan Senators Carl) Levin and (Debbie) Stabenow and wrote a letter, expressing our frustrations," U'Ren said. "I don't know how we could test the Great Lakes beaches anymore. It's the same in all of Michigan. If the federal funding gets taken away, it's left to the state or local governments to continue the monitoring."

Beaches in Grand Traverse, Leelanau and Benzie counties were monitored twice a week last summer, resulting in eight lake advisories: four at the Acme Bayside Park, and one each at Bryant Park, Greilickville Harbor Park, East Bay Park, and Traverse City Park. Storm drains with outlets placed at or near the beaches were the culprit, U'Ren said.

"In the city, raccoons like to live in the storm drains, and they do their business in storm drains. When it rains, all the poop gets washed out," U'Ren said.

Briggs said the Watershed Center has a very powerful program of not only water sampling but also investigating the underlying sources of contamination, using federal money from the Great Lakes Restoration Fund. She also used grant money from the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians for the water sampling and investigation of the E. Coli.

"It's a showcase of how this can work," Briggs said.

Bryant Park was fixed this past July, with East Bay Park and Suttons Bay beach projects breaking ground this spring, U'Ren said.

Now that the elections are over, it's time to speak up, Briggs said.

"If people want this, they should let Congress know this is an important thing they want. They'll want to share their thoughts," Briggs said. "It was a busy campaign season, and now that everybody is back in their seats, they're already talking about budget."

Not only should citizens be concerned about funding, but also the fact that Michigan gets a smaller fraction of funds than it should, Briggs said.

"The squeaky wheel story in Michigan is that we get similar amounts of money from the BEACH Act to states that have 20 miles of beach line," Briggs said. "That's been a sore spot for Michigan."