Improving Water Quality In Southwestern Michigan Beaches

Protecting the quality of Harbor Country’s water resources has been a key focus of The Pokagon Fund in its efforts to maintain the environmental and economic vitality of our community. In 2015, The Pokagon Fund approved a $50,000 grant to The Conservation Fund with two goals:  (a) complete a watershed management plan, and (b) identify specific areas contributing to water quality problems for 12 streams in the Harbor Country area.

 As part of that effort, a public-private partnership led by the Southwest Michigan Planning Commission is using trained canines to systematically identify the source of E. coli problems on 10 beaches in Harbor County.  With a grant from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, including the grant from The Pokagon Fund and funding from Freshpet, Inc., the project is conducting a study of the 12 streams and developing a plan to address E. coli contamination and other water quality issues over a three-year period.

E. coli is bacteria that indicates the presence of human or animal waste. Since 2010, several beaches along Lake Michigan, from Stevensville to the Indiana state line, have had closings due to the risk of serious illness caused by high levels of bacteria, including: 
 

  • Warren Dunes State Park Beach (17 days)
  • Weko Beach (7 days)
  • Cherry Beach (8 days)
  • Union Pier (Townline Road) (9 days)
  • Harbert Beach (2 days)
  • Grand Beach/Michiana beaches (10 days) 

 
Each of these beaches have streams that outlet in or near the beach area.  Though the streams were the suspected source for elevatedE. coli levels at the beach, pinpointing where the E. coli is coming from has been difficult.   
 
Last summer, project partners—including the Southwest Michigan Planning Commission, The Conservation Fund, Berrien County Health Department, Chikaming Open Lands and Great Lakes Scientific—started investigating the sources of E.coli along the streams.  Water samples, taken from each stream at the outlet to Lake Michigan and at points further upstream, were sent to Environmental Canine Services (ECS) to be sniffed by dogs that can detect human wastewater. 
“The contamination was widespread, with dogs detecting human waste in 31 out of 50 samples,” said Marcy Hamilton, Senior Planner with the Southwest Michigan Planning Commission. “Human waste was detected in six of the 12 streams.”
 
ECS then brought dogs to southwest Michigan for follow up investigations. “The dogs are able to detect things that humans can’t,” said Peg Kohring, Midwest Regional Director for The Conservation Fund, one of the partners implementing the canine investigation as well as analyzing the results. “This study is making important strides in ensuring that Lake Michigan’s beaches are safe for future generations. Safeguarding water quality in the area is good for the community, the local economy and the environment.”
 
The dogs identified several problem areas that are being investigated, including failing septic systems and pipes that are funneling sewage from homes to creeks and storm drains. However, most of the problems are believed to be a result of failing sanitary sewer infrastructure in the area.  These sanitary sewer lines and lift stations may be leaking sewage into streams, which then flow to Lake Michigan and cause the beach closures. 
 
The project partners will continue the investigation next spring and summer to find and correct problems.  In the meantime, the Southwest Michigan Planning Commission will be visiting with city, village, township and county staff and officials to raise awareness of the problem and to begin discussing solutions.

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