Berrien County won't be doing rapid beach water testing this year

Beachgoers pack Silver Beach in St. Joseph during a summer afternoon. The Berrien County Health Department will be monitoring water at 14 beaches for E. coli contamination this summer, but won’t be able to immediately take advantage of a new state method to speed test results.

BENTON TOWNSHIP — Michigan shoreline communities now have the option of using a water test for contamination that provides results in hours, and not days, but that won’t be available for Berrien County this year, the county board of health learned Wednesday.

Nick Margaritas, director of the Berrien County Health Department’s environmental health division, told board members that the Michigan Department of Environment, Greats Lakes and Energy had sent a letter approving the option of using the rapid test for detecting E. coli, which can cause illness if swallowed.

The test that has been in use provides results the next day, usually within 18 to 24 hours, Margaritas said. Usually by that time, E. coli levels have dropped, making the test results almost irrelevant.

For several years the Berrien County Health Department has participated in developing the faster test by sending samples to research labs, and will continue to do so this year.

There are 14 labs in the state available to test samples using the rapid method, technically referred to as Quantitative Polymerase Chain Reaction. The closest one to Berrien County is in Kalamazoo, but it won’t be conducting rapid tests this year because of staffing issues, Margaritas said.

Having quick results is important because water conditions change rapidly. Margaritas said samples taken this month at Warren Dunes and Weko Beach showed E. coli levels above 300 per 100 millilters of water. At that point the department issues an advisory that the water might not be safe for swimming, and a beach can be temporarily closed.

Samples taken the next day at the beaches showed E. coli levels that had dropped to low double digits, Margaritas reported.

The health department will be monitoring the water quality at the popular beaches of Cherry, Grand, Hagar Township, Jean Klock, Lincoln Township, Lions Park, Michiana village, New Buffalo, Rocky Gap, Silver Beach, Tiscornia, Union Pier, Warren Dunes and Weko.

The health department also will be sending samples from New Buffalo, Silver Beach and Warren Dunes to the U.S. Geological Survey lab for rapid testing.

Margaritas said the testing season is a fun time when staff members can put on their bathing suits and wade into the water. But it isn’t very comfortable at this time of the year, when water temperatures are in the 50s, he added. Bad weather prevented testing during the Memorial Day weekend.

When a water advisory is issued, the health department notifies the municipality where the beach is located, Margaritas explained, and it is up to those officials whether a beach closes. The health department could mandate a closing if the levels are high enough, he said.

Health Officer Nicki Britten said other communities take different actions when E. coli levels are high, such as warning swimmers and recommending that they wash off after leaving the water.

The state office will be posting water conditions on its BeachGuard website using the new testing results.

The water at Berrien County beaches is generally pretty clean. Last year’s testing detected high levels of the bacteria in only five incidences, all early in the season and none after July 2. No Berrien beaches exceeded the water quality standards in 2017.

E. coli bacteria live in the digestive systems of humans and other warm-blooded animals. Sources include illicit waste connections to storm sewers or roadside ditches, septic systems, combined and sanitary sewer overflows, storm runoff, wild domestic animal waste, and agriculture runoff. Most strains of the E. coli bacteria are not dangerous, but they can indicate the presence of other disease-causing bacteria, and swallowing the water can cause illness.

The Department of Environmental Quality points out that it is misconception that if one area of the lake is contaminated, then the whole lake is contaminated. Bacteria contamination originates from conditions present on or near the shore and two beaches on opposite ends of a lake that have different on-shore conditions will not have the same bacteria levels.

On the day last summer that Lions Park Beach had a reading of 400, Silver Beach had a level of 22 and Tiscornia was at 70.

E. coli levels can sometimes rise following storms and heavy run-off from sewers and farms. But that’s not always the case, and it’s hard to pinpoint what causes bacteria levels to go up. That’s why the weekly tests are conducted.

Margaritas and his colleagues also are conducting tests to search for mosquitoes that can carry West Nile and Zika viruses, and the species of tick that can spread Lyme disease.

Contact: jmatuszak@TheHP.com, 932-0360, Twitter: @HPMatuszak