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West Michigan water enthusiasts should feel confident diving in

By Jordan Climie/The Holland Sentinel • May 27, 2017 at 12:00 PM

While testing doesn’t begin until June for most area beaches, it appears safe to go into the water.

“People should feel confident knowing that our beaches are clean,” said Kristina Wieghmink, communications specialist for the Ottawa County Department of Public Health.

Why should there be concern in the first place? Runoff into Lake Michigan that could bring bacteria.

“There’s always that environmental factor if there are any pollutants that could get in the water,” Wieghmink said.

Water runoff from melting snow could be a concern as spring hits. As it flows over the land surface, the snowmelt picks up potential pollutants that may include sediment, nutrients (from lawn fertilizers), bacteria (from animal and human waste), pesticides (from lawn and garden chemicals), metals (from rooftops and roadways), and petroleum by-products (from leaking vehicles), according to the U.S. Geological Society.

That didn’t stop Holland native Rosa Garcia and her family from hitting the beach recently.

“With a beautiful day, we can’t stay away,” Garcia said. “The water might be a little too cold right now, but just soaking up the sun on the beach is worth it to get out here.”

According to a study published early this year in the Journal of Great Lakes Research and produced by researchers at Canada’s Water and Science Directorate, runoff from snow and snowmelt could be a significant non-point source of fecal contamination and threaten the health of winter sports enthusiasts. How does it affect the waters now, though?

This runoff could lead to E. coli entering the waters along Lake Michigan. E. coli is a bacteria found in the digestive systems of warm-blooded mammals and birds. Health authorities look for it to determine the presence of human and other waste.

“The presence of E. coli in surface water is an indicator of pollution by feces,” said Joan Rose, a professor of water microbiology at Michigan State University and an international expert in water quality and public health safety. “If ingested, it can make you sick. If pathogens are present, there is fear of an outbreak. Our goal is to keep fecal contamination down and keep E. coli out of drinking water and food.”

The Center for Disease Control states that E. coli also indicates the potential for other pathogens that can be the source of large outbreaks of disease, including cholera, dysentery, giardia, diarrhea, urinary tract infections, respiratory illness and pneumonia.

“Fecal contamination of snow is from various sources ranging from manure, sewage, livestock waste and droppings from pets like dogs,” said Molly Rippke, an aquatic biologist specialist for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

Waterfowl and migratory birds may also contribute to direct fecal deposition in snow and during ice formation in water along beaches and in lakes, the report said.

“However, wildlife isn’t as much of a problem as human sewage, domesticated animals, agriculture and agricultural cattle, sheep, pigs and chickens,” Rose said. “Ultimately, our goal is to prevent pollution and to ensure that animal and human feces are adequately treated before disposed of.”

In Ottawa County, public beaches are tested weekly from June to September, so there isn’t information for 2017 yet. Ottawa County Department of Public Health contend that the county boasts some of the cleanest and most beautiful freshwater beaches in the country. A recent publication of the National Resources Defense Council reported less than three percent of beach water samples collected in Ottawa County had excessive E. coli levels compared to five percent statewide.

Wieghmink says the testing results all depend on the location and time, with weather being a big factor.

“Last year, the levels were at safe range; Grand Haven State Park was at 320, a little bit above,” Wieghmink said. “That subsided the following week. It went down to 1. You can see the big range here varies on the weather.”

When testing is done, results will be posted on the public health website, Facebook and Twitter.

However, the department does offer tips to avoid recreational water illnesses:

• Do not swallow lake water and avoid getting water in your mouth.

• Wash your hands with soap and water before eating.

• Take your kids on bathroom breaks and be sure young children wear clean swim diapers.

• Do not swim when you are sick. You can spread germs in the water and make other people sick.

• Do not swim in water that appears murky, smells foul or looks polluted in any way.

• Avoid swimming immediately after heavy rainfall.

• Do not feed seagulls.

• Shower when you return home.

“It’s always a concern,” said Garcia. “But we’ve never had any problems (with our kids getting sick). We make sure they stay safe, but for this to be such a great recreational opportunity so close to home, it’s hard to keep the kids away on a beautiful day.”

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