2017-08-17 / Life in Leelanau

Heavy rains cause beach warnings; overall, though, good water quality

By Amy Hubbell
Of The Enterprise staff

The quality of water at Leelanau County beaches has been good this summer with few exceptions.

The Benzie-Leelanau Health Department (BLDHD) samples 12 sites each Wednesday from June through Labor Day. Eight of the dozen are located in Leelanau County. The remaining four are sites in Benzie County.

“We start taking samples just after Memorial Day or as soon as the water’s warm enough to get into,” said Tom Fountain, environmental health director with BLDHD.

The level of E. coli detected in water samples determines the extent to which contact is advisable: the higher the count, the greater the restriction on contact.

The Water Quality Index divides tests findings into four levels.

An E.coli rate of 0 to 300 parts per 100 milliliters is safe for full body contact and falls into Level 1. Between 300 and 1,000 parts per 100/ml activities such as wading, fishing, and boating are OK. However, no contact is advised above the waist.

No contact is advised for readings above 1,000 per 100/ml.

Since the first sampling on June 14, there have been just two no contact advisories issued for sites monitored by the health department in Leelanau County.

The test at the Suttons Bay Marina the first week of monitoring was 1,553 parts per 100/ml — well above the other samples taken.

By comparison, the highest any of the other sites was 172 per 100/ml at the Northport marina. The marina park in Suttons Bay had 151 per 100/ml and Greilickville Harbor Park, 125. All were well below the standard for a no contact order.

The no contact order at the Suttons Bay Marina was lifted the following day as a repeat sample found E. coli levels to be within normal range.

Samples taken at sites on July 26 resulted in a level 2 and level 3 advisory at the Northport Marina and Beulah Beach on Crystal Lake, respectively.

Some 2,419 parts of E. coli per 100/ml on Crystal Lake, also known as “gross contamination,” closing the beach to body contact.

At Northport 488 parts per 100/ml resulted in a Level 2 warning the same day and contact above the waist was not advised.

All these high E. coli readings have one common denominator.

“When it’s rainy and stormy with wind and rainfall, you’ll see high readings,” Fountain said. “The rain flushes material into the water.”

However, the tests performed by the health department aren’t timely. The results, received the day after, essentially let users know whether there was problem in the water they swam in “yesterday.”

The National Park Service has new technology that will produce “same day” results.

Quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR) evaluates samples taken on a weekly basis from 11 sites within Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore (SBDNL).

“It’s a huge advantage,” said Tom Ulrich, Lakeshore deputy superintendent. “Conditions change so quickly. The sites can be tested and retested in the same day.”

Earlier this summer, bacteria levels at several sites, resulted in advisories at the Platte River Outlet, Platte Point Beach and Otter Creek — all in Benzie County — and Shalda Creek and Good Harbor Creek in Leelanau County.

Shalda Creek, located just west of the road end access at Co. Rd. 669, had a “no contact” advisory. Samples taken four days later indicated that bacteria levels had dropped and the advisory was lifted.

Not among the advisory sites was the creek at Good Harbor Beach, even though a “no contact” advisory has been in place at the site for more than a year.

The creek drains a wetland that could contribute to high bacteria levels.

“When there’s rain or a significant rainfall, the water flushes rich organic matter downstream,” Ulrich said.

The quality of local streams that drain into Lake Michigan is also of interest to students from Western Michigan University’s Freshwater Science and Sustainability program.

They were in the field Tuesday collecting samples from Lime Creek, which flows into Lime Lake; Shalda Creek and Shetland Creek.

Overall, Ulrich said the health of water is “very good.”

“Anecdotally, we haven’t been informed of anybody getting sick from ingesting water,” he said.

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