Two Decades and Counting of Beach Water Monitoring

We’ve come a long way, baby

It’s not uncommon today for recreational swimmers and beachgoers to check online to learn about the health of the beach they’re intending to visit to learn if there are advisories or closures reported.

There are even signs at most beaches to inform beachgoers whether the water is safe for swimming, some of those signs cellular-connected for instant notification.

It’s also common for a group of college interns to arrive in Door County each summer with the job of taking more than 1,200 samples over the course of the summer at roughly 32 of Door County’s 54 beaches so they can alert beachgoers whether the water is safe for swimming.

It’s easy to forget that more than 22 years ago, none of this happened. Twenty-two years ago, no one had even made the connection that beach water becomes contaminated with E.coli to such an extent that it presents a human health hazard for swimmers. 

Twenty-two years ago, the idea of public health closing a Door County beach during the height of the summer season was akin to public health requiring masks during the pandemic.

“We closed the beach which, at the time, was a radical and controversial intervention,” is the way it was put to the Peninsula Pulse by Sue Powers, Door County Public Health officer/manager, back in 2022 before she retired. 

Powers was not with the Public Health Department at the time, but was recalling when Rhonda Kohlberg, head of the department in 2002, made the decision to close Nicolet Bay Beach after 68 Peninsula State Park campers who swam at the beach developed gastrointestinal illness. No one knew why, how or what had caused the illnesses, Powers recalled. It required an investigation, with the connection eventually made between the illnesses and water contaminated by avian, animal or human feces.

The next year in 2003, the beach-water monitoring program was born – a coincidental occurrence, said Greg Kleinheinz, who chairs the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh’s Department of Engineering and Engineering Technology. A few years earlier, the federal BEACH (Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health) (BEACH Act) was signed into law on Oct. 10, 2000, amending the Clean Water Act. The BEACH Act required the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to develop performance criteria for testing, monitoring and notifying public users of possible recreation water problems. 

Summer interns do more than monitor beach water since that program started in 2003. In this 2022 photo, they are on an aquatic trash boat searching for plastic in the water. (From left) interns Nicole Cochems, and Sara Pabich, with Greg Kleinheinz, the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh professor who has been running the beach monitoring and associated projects since 2003. File photo by Rachel Lukas.

From there, money became available for states, and Wisconsin was all in, as was Door County, Kleinheinz said. The Door County Public Health Department, which receives money from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources for the beach monitoring program, has contracted with Kleinheinz to perform the monitoring since the program’s inception. He, in turn, created and continues to oversee the college intern program and data collection.  

The program monitors E. coli in the water – which indicates the water is likely to be contaminated by feces, increasing the risk of exposure to pathogens that can cause illness. If the E.coli level hits advisory-or closure-level EPA standards, the interns post the beach accordingly. 

That program as it exists today has evolved significantly two decades later, with the college interns embedded for the summer within the community, and local lab analysis implemented at Crossroads at Big Creek so that samples don’t have to be mailed. Standardized testing parameters have also been developed that guide when, where and how those students are collecting their beach water samples. 

“Everything is getting treated the same way,” Kleinheinz said. “So if something happens, everybody is operating with the same rule book.”

Had this monitoring program been around back in 2002, the odds would have been exponentially greater of detecting the contamination before people came into contact with it, Kleinheinz said.

“The beach would have been closed immediately at Nicolet and a lot of the people who ended up getting sick would not have had contact with the water,” he said.

The Search for Source Identification

The beach-water monitoring was underway across the state by 2004, and many beach communities were satisfied with testing the water and notifying the public as needed. Not Door County.

“Door County wanted to know what was causing it and what could be done about it,” Kleinheinz said. 

There were a number of early-year theories of source identification – “Originally, people thought it was coming from Chicago or Menominee,” Kleinheinz said – but eventually, they learned the sources of E.coli were local, with Kleinheinz’s interns also joined that search.

“We were even sampling storm drains,” Kleinheinz said. “In the middle of the summer when it rained these students would go out and collect samples and we would relate that back to how long it would take from the storm drain to the beach.”

He said they have learned over the years through biological testing that in most cases in Door County today, the fecal contamination causing E.coli levels to spike is from avian species. 

“Most of the time it’s them doing their business on the shoreline and when it rains that stuff all washes in,” he said – whether directly over the feces or from the beach sand where E.coli remains for a long time if the beach conditions are favorable (see related story on mitigation efforts). 

Even that link had to be connected – that rainfall, particularly a large rainfall event, would spike E.coli levels. When that was first discovered, the county took preemptive measures.

“Every time we got a half inch or more we would close beaches,” said Greg Coulthurst, Soil and Water Conservation Department conservationist – a practice that’s no longer done, given the number of mitigation techniques that have been implemented over the past two decades (see related story).

“The one thing we can say is we’re pretty certain, in most cases, the fecal material is not human,” Kleinheinz said. “It’s not from leaking septic systems or wastewater – it’s dogs, avian, whatever is running down the storm drain or surface water runoff. That means it’s not as concerning in some ways, but it also means you have other things you have to address.” 

Will There Ever Be Zero Beach Closures?

Today, there is a website where  people can learn about the health of most beaches in Door County. 

“People are looking at the website,” Kleinheinz said. “The county also has a hotline and phone number and people use that. Families are making decisions based on that monitoring and what that website shows.”

The interns, too, have participated in numerous side projects over the years that have benefitted Door County, including beach grooming cladophora, a type of green algae that washes up on beaches, especially when water levels are low. If left to rot on the beach, it can promote bacterial growth. It also washes up with crustaceans, attracting large flocks of gulls, resulting in high concentrations of fecal material and bacteria. 

That’s just one of many examples.

“We are a partner providing a great opportunity for students,” Kleinheinz said. “They get to work in the field and in the lab at Crossroads. What an experience for a college student. It’s been a really good partnership and it all started because of the beach monitoring and all the things have grown from that.”

This is not to say that they’re working toward an end to beach monitoring. Kleinheinz said he doesn’t forsee that happening.

“There always has to be an evaluative tool with that many people using beaches,” he said.

What could happen is that monitoring evolves with technology to more accurately forecast if the water could cause sickness.

“The one disconnect we have today is we use an indicator organism – E.coli,” he said. “E.coli is not the thing that actually makes you sick. It’s all the other fecal material that makes you sick.”

By that he means that E.coli only proves there was recent fecal contamination, but it doesn’t show what types of pathogens exist. 

“Sometime, we will get something that will economically look at the true pathogens – not just the indicator,” he said. “It doesn’t exist right now, at least not economically – it takes too long and it’s too expensive – but at some point, the technology will exist.”  

Does he forsee a time when there would be zero beach closures over the course of a season?“The answer is ‘no,’” he said. “E.coli is in the environment all the time. We can discern pathogens versus nonpathogens when that happens; we can get closer to zero. You want to close the beach when you have to, and you should. But you don’t want to miss the time you should have closed it and didn’t.”

Five signs like this exist at public beaches in Door County – this one shown at Baileys Harbor Ridges County Park, as well as Frank E. Murphy County Park in the town of Egg Harbor; Egg Harbor Beach; and Otumba Park and Sunset Park beaches in Sturgeon Bay – with the County of Door working with other municipalities to get more of the signs installed for the 2024 season. The signs allow instantaneous notification from a remote location once testing reveals action is required. At beaches that don’t have these signs, college interns who regularly test the beach water must drive to the beach to post an advisory or closure sign, and then back again to remove the signs once the conditions improve. From a single sample, the recreational water guideline for an advisory is an E.coli count greater than 235 MPN/100 mL, but less than 1,000 MPN/100mL. A closure occurs when the E.coli count is 1,000 MPN/100 mL or greater. Photo by D.A. Fitzgerald.