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Beach Management: Combating E. coli

June 12, 2024

By Steve Dishman, Park Interpreter

“Beach Closed” It’s a sign we all have seen before, usually right when the weather would be perfect for a swim. It’s frustrating and annoying when you can’t get in the water. But why do beaches get closed? Simply put, it’s water quality issues. We have a bacteria that helps us test the water and it is called E. coli.

A view of E. Coli under a microscope.

Escherichia coli or E. coli is a strain of bacteria. Found naturally inside the digestive tracts of most animals- including humans, waterfowl, and cows-  E. coli doesn’t usually cause a problem. When it enters our waterways (or food systems) through sewage or manure spills, E. coli  has the potential to cause harm if it’s ingested or enters an open wound.

But it plays a bigger role in understanding our water quality because it is readily detectable. While the bacteria itself is usually not hazardous, it is used by many agencies, including your Huron-Clinton Metroparks, as an indicator of fecal pollution. This can happen when heavy precipitation overloads storm sewers and causes overflow or when manure on the landscape is washed into the waterway.  So, when E. coli levels are high, we must close beach access to people until the levels decrease. E. coli testing is done multiple times per week in the summer to monitor the levels correctly. Everything from precipitation levels to wind and wave action can impact E. coli levels.

But how do we keep E. coli levels down? Since it is present in animal feces, beaches do their best to control the effect of animals on the beach. Domestic animals like dogs are generally not allowed on public swimming beaches. Also, measures are in effect to control wild animals, namely waterfowl, on our public beaches. E. coli can be also present in storm water after periods of heavy rain, so it’s important to keep stormwater drains away from public beaches.  E. coli does not exist in water long. Usually, UV light and waves in the water will help to lower the rate of E. coli.

As citizens, we can help to reduce E. coli on public beaches several ways. For one, do not feed birds such as gulls and geese, especially by beaches. Vegetation is allowed to grow taller in areas to reduce waterfowl from congregating – they prefer short, mowed grass where visibility is high and predators can’t sneak up on them.

Feeding wildlife leads to animal health problems as well as raising E. coli levels in our waters. Cleaning up after your pet when walking is a second way you can help and dispose of the waste in proper containers/bags. A further way you can help is to join a local watershed group to help with river cleanups or even water monitoring! It doesn’t take much to keep pollutants out of our water and keep E. coli levels down. With everyone doing their part, we can keep beaches open, safe, and ready for summer fun!

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