Thursday, June 10, 2010

Summer's coming, get ready for more fecal matter closing Great Lakes beaches (and why your great grandma is to blame)

A popular Lake Michigan beach in South Haven closed earlier this week after too much human sewage was routed into the lake by substandard sewer systems. Simply put, too much shit in the water:

This problem is not unique. Lots of Michigan beaches are shut down each summer because of dangerously high counts of E. coli, the bacteria that is an indicator of fecal matter in the water. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) tracks contamination data from public beaches. In 2008 it reported that 5 percent of beach water samples in Michigan exceeded minimum bacterial standards: That translates to hundreds of beach/days of closure each summer.

According to the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, there are six beach closures today alone:

The beaches exceeding standards by the greatest amount in 2008 according to the NRDC include: Crescent Sail Yacht Club in Wayne County (45%), Singing Bridge Beach in Arenac County (30%), St. Clair Shores Memorial Park Beach in Macomb County (26%), Pier Park in Wayne County (20%), Silver Creek Channel (20%), Lighthouse Beach At Silver Lake State Park in Oceana County (19%), and Caseville County Park (17%). You can track recent beach closures in Michigan here:

And we’re only talking swimming beaches – not places like the Rouge River downstream from my house, where rafts of condoms and piles of feces quite literally float by in the wake of heavy rainstorms.

Human waste is by no means the only culprit. Animal and bird feces contribute to E. coli, and it may even be reproducing in beach sand … meaning that shifts in wave action could drag the stuff out into the water:

But human feces is, undoubtedly a huge problem. It's a little unsettling to think you could be swimming in the very same unmentionables you thought you'd flushed away yesterday. Or, worse yet, your neighbor's unmentionables. All told, it's  a black eye for the Pure Michigan image of the Great Lakes State, and for those in the 772 cities that the EPA says still have combined sewer systems:

Such “combined” sewer pipes carry both stormwater runoff and “sanitary” sewage from your toilet. (Shouldn't they call it, "unsanitary" sewage?) When it rains hard, the sudden influx of stormwater and overwhelms the treatment plant. Emergency discharge valves open up, allowing the nasty mix to spill directly into the Rouge River, or the Kalamazoo River, or the Grand River or whatever.

Today, all new sewer systems are separated. Stormwater goes into one pipe.  Toilet water goes into another one. But there are enough old combined lines around to create a problem for decades into the future. Separating them is incredibly expensive, and not always the most effective use of scarce dollars available to spend on water quality improvement.

It’s a sterling example of how shortsighted policies of the past were penny wise and pound foolish. Building a single sewer pipe and dumping everything into the river saved a lot of money for the taxpayers of 1900, or 1920, or 1940. But their great grandchildren are now paying the price – both in terms of expensive solutions and in diminished quality of life.

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