“Those familiar with the beach monitoring program in the past may recall advisories being issued throughout the summer,” said Shannon Felgner, communications specialist for the Ottawa County Health Department. “The challenge we faced for many years was the time lapse of at least 24 hours between water sampling and the availability of test results. The test results were from water collected the prior day, yet we felt a civic responsibility to issue an advisory.
“Last year, we were able to confirm that surges in E. coli levels are short-lived,” she continued. “In almost all cases the advisories were not necessary. We made the best decision with the information we had at the time. Now we have better information and, as a result, we are changing our process.”
Research conducted last year found that in 99 percent of instances, on the day that the advisory was issued, the beach water was actually below the 300 E. coli per 100 milliliters of water threshold recommended for safe swimming.
The test results will continue to be posted online at www.miottawa.org/beachwatch so beachgoers can make informed decisions about water quality.
There are several reasons why the Health Department continues to test the water, Felgner said. The vision is to proactively issue advisories much quicker than sampling alone will allow. The Health Department studies the relationships between weather conditions, beach visitors, wildlife, currents, water quality and other factors. Continued testing is a critical component of the research that will lead to predictive models for swimming safety and preventing recreational water illnesses.
In addition, the Health Department is testing rapid-result laboratory equipment not yet approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. If pilot testing is successful, future E. coli tests could be completed from sampling to results in just several hours.
Both initiatives could improve beach water monitoring programs nationwide.
“No-body contact advisories” will continue to be issued in response to sewer overflows or isolated incidents of known contaminants discharged into bodies of water.