A report by an environmental organization on the condition of the beaches in the U.S., including the Great Lakes, paints a picture of a natural resource imperiled by climate change, failing infrastructure, algae, and invasive species.
Warm weather last year exacerbated conditions in the lakes that had already been deteriorating, according to the report, Testing the Waters, A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches, by the National Resources Defense Council.
“In 2012, out of all the areas measured, the Great Lakes region had the highest percentage of monitoring samples that exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency’s health standards,” the report says. “Approximately 1 in every 10 samples taken in the region last year was more contaminated than EPA’s standards allowed.
Citing a study by the American Society of Civil Engineers that rates the nation’s aging wastewater system a D+, the NRDC report notes an investment of $100.6 billion in wastewater infrastructure improvements are needed over the next 20 years in the eight Great Lakes states.
“More than 70 percent of all combined sewers in the United States are located in the Great Lakes region,” the report says. “When heavy rainfall overwhelms these systems, they are designed to send excess flow through wastewater outfall locations into local waterways, including the Great Lakes, to prevent sewage from flooding homes and businesses. Of the five states with the highest number of outfall locations, four of them – Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and Illinois – have shorelines along the lakes.”
In an August 2012 article in Applied and Environmental Microbiology, researchers reported finding Arcobacter, a pathogen associated with human and animal fecal contamination, at each of the four Ohio beaches tested.
Pollutants released into surface waters in the Great Lakes Basin increased by 12 percent from 2010 to 2011, with most being nitrates and pesticides from municipal wastewater treatment plants and agricultural sources as well as food and beverage manufacturers and iron and steel mills that contribute to nitrate pollution.
The combination of nitrogen and phosphorus in storm water runoff, overflows from sewers and wastewater treatment plants, and agricultural runoff contribute to the growth of algal blooms in the lakes, fouling beaches and producing toxins that are dangerous to humans, according to the report, which also notes that programs to monitor harmful algal blooms to protect swimmers are lacking in the Great Lakes states.
“While this study looks at beach closings from sewage sources – e.coli, in particular, it does not include beach closings caused by toxic algae. As water quality and quantity grow in importance for economies of regions and for overall sustainability, the growing need to maintain water quality becomes more evident, said Sandy Bihn, executive director of Lake Erie Waterkeeper, Inc. “Toxic algae comes from too many nutrients on the land going into our waters. The largest single source of phosphorous to Lake Erie is the Detroit wastewater plant. Other sources include farm fertilizer, manure, storm water, failing septic systems, and lawn fertilizer.”
Invasive species such as the quagga and zebra mussels and Asian carp also contribute to the formation of algae.
Last year, about 10 percent of all reported beach monitoring samples exceeded the national daily maximum bacterial standard of 235 colonies/100 milliliter.
The beaches with the highest percentage exeedance rates of the daily maximum standard in 2102 were:
Jeorse Park Beach I in Indiana (70 percent), Camp Perry in Ohio (70 percent), Wisconsin Point Beach 2 in Wisconsin (64 percent), Arcadia Beach in Ohio (57 percent), Jeorse Park Beach II in Indiana (52 percent), Lakeview Beach (52 percent) and Bay View West (49 percent) in Ohio, Bender Beach in Wisconsin (48 percent), Park Point 20th Street/Hearding Island Canal Beach in Minnesota (47 percent), and Port Clinton (Deep\Lakeview) (47 percent) and Lakeshore Park in Ashtabula, Ohio (44 percent).
Ohio had the highest exceedance rate of the daily maximum standard in 2012 (20 percent), followed by New York (Great Lakes beaches only, 14 percent), Wisconsin (14 percent), Minnesota (12 percent), Indiana (10 percent), Illinois (10 percent), Pennsylvania (9 percent), and Michigan (6 percent).
“With all the rain we have had, we could all help Lake Erie by installing rain gardens, planting native plants with deeper root systems to hold water and not using phosphorous in mature lawn fertilizer - Scott's has stopped using phosphorous in its products to help the algae problem,” Bihn said. While getting sewage out of water is very important and should have been done long ago, the warming planet, increases algae growth and threatens our waters. We all need to help.
“At a recent conference I attended in Atlanta, Atlanta's mayor stated that the answer to Georgia's water problems was to run a pipe from Ohio. We often think of the arid west as the threat but more and more the availability of water becomes a driver in community planning.”