HARBERT — Cherry Beach in Chikaming Township has been closed until further notice by the Berrien County Health Department because of high levels of E. coli contamination, caused by a sewer line break.
Sanitarians with the health department tested the water at the beach Monday, as part of their routine monitoring of lake water quality. They found the level of E. coli at 1,200 parts per milliliter of water, above the level of 300 at which a beach closure is recommended. The water was re-tested Tuesday, and the levels remained elevated.
Gillian Conrad, communications manager with the health department, said the environmental health staff consulted with the Galien River Sanitary District. It was determined that there was a main sewer line break that was leaking into the storm sewer, which empties into the lake.
At that point the health department issued an official beach closure Tuesday, until further notice. Conrad explained that this is stronger than an advisory/recommendation and it is something that the health department has the jurisdiction to do given any potential risk to public health. Typically the health department will issue a recommendation and allow the municipality where the beach is located to decide whether it should be closed to swimmers.
Crews from Burkholder Excavation were still working along Red Arrow Highway, north of Union Pier, Wednesday afternoon to repair the pipe. Warren Histed, director of the Galien River Sanitary District, said they had repaired one leak Tuesday but found another break, that he expected would be repaired that afternoon. Histed said the employees had been working 10-hour days to complete the repairs.
This is the first closure at Cherry Beach for bacteria contamination since 2014. The sanitarians are continuing to monitor and sample the lake water along the beach in the area, and when sample readings are back within acceptable limits, they will re-open the beach at that time, Conrad said.
E. coli is a bacteria that is found in human and animal waste and can cause illness if swallowed, including abdominal cramps, diarrhea and vomiting. Young children and older adults are at higher risk of experiencing illness caused by E. coli and more serious complications from the infection.
Health department staff check the water at 14 Berrien County beaches weekly. It typically takes 18 to 24 hours to receive lab results. Beaches that show high levels of E. coli are re-tested the next day. State officials are studying a method that can provide results in a couple of hours, but that is not available for Berrien County this year. E. coli levels generally fall quickly due to currents in the lake, depending on the source of the contamination.
The health department encourages residents and visitors to check out the Michigan Beach Guard system at www.deq.state.mi.us/beach, where updates on beach closures around the state are posted.
Contact: jmatuszak@TheHP.com, 932-0360, Twitter: @HPMatuszak