As Minnesotans, we have 10,000 lakes. And we have hot summers. That combination gives us the right as Minnesotans to be able to jump into a lake to cool off. Here in Duluth, we have the coldest lake of all to jump into, big icy Lake Superior. But before you dive in this summer, take some time to learn what you are jumping in to.
Protecting the water quality at our swimming beaches is an essential government service. Public health and environmental protection run hand-in-hand. Going back to the federal Clean Water Act of 1972, public beaches are meant to be “swimmable.” When summer heat prods us into the lakes, as a society we need that water to be clean and healthy.
Since 2000, state agencies have been monitoring the water quality at beaches in Duluth and up the North Shore. This effort was kicked off by the federal Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health (BEACH) Act of 2000. Beach monitors look for fecal coliform, such as E. coli, which is found in human excrement.
If fecal coliform is found in the water, there’s a good chance that the water also contains organisms that can cause vomiting, sinus infections, or stomach ache, among other illnesses. When beach monitors find a high level of fecal coliform, they post warning signs on the beach and on the website. In some extreme cases, agencies actually close the beach.
I live on Minnesota Point in Duluth. This long skinny sandbar separates two bodies of water. On one side, it’s the open waters of Lake Superior. The water is often clear and cold, and it’s not uncommon to see a loon swimming by. On the lake side, the public beaches near my house have been awarded a national “Superstar” rating in recent years for both water quality and the state’s efforts to monitor it.
It’s a different story on the harbor side of Minnesota Point, where the water is warm and murky. At the peak of summer here in Duluth, the beaches on the harbor side of Minnesota Point may test positive for E. coli for weeks at a time. On a hot summer day, I’m so glad I have a choice to swim in clean, safe water.
As beach monitoring got underway in the last fifteen years, positive tests for contamination caught many people and municipalities by surprise. People began to ask: if the public beach is contaminated, what have we done wrong? How can we fix it? In Duluth, citizens wondered if our sewage treatment plan (which empties into the harbor) might be failing to clean the water. New research blossomed as scientists studied the genetic make-up of the E. coli bacteria to determine the source.
The Minnesota Department of Health lists numerous potential sources of fecal contamination, from stormwater run-off and failing septic systems to the carefully-worded “swimmer fecal accident.” On beaches up the cold, crisp North Shore, a toddler with a leaky diaper playing in the cobblestones could trigger a positive test result.
We can’t legislate against “fecal accidents.” And not everyone can choose to jump in clear, cold Lake Superior. The information provided by the beach monitors lets us make informed decisions about just which lake we’re going to jump into. That information should also push us to be better stewards of our precious Minnesota lakes, whether it’s protecting Lake Superior or cleaning up the local swimming hole.
Monitoring has now extended to the Twin Cities area and communities like Grand Rapids and Rochester, so I encourage you to do your research before you dive in to the waters this summer.
For more information: Minnesota Department of Health Beach Monitoring Program : www.mnbeaches.org
This blog orginally appeared in slightly different form on Hindsight: The Minnesota 2020 blog