If you're thinking of sunbathing or playing with little tykes on one of the beaches bordering the Great Lakes, you might want to rethink your decision. According to The Natural Resources Defense Council's (NRDC's) annual survey, pollution levels in the Great Lakes have resulted in more beach closings and advisories than sixteen of the nineteen years in which the survey has been done. The effects of sewage and storm-water contaminated beaches may range from unpleasant stomach flu to neurological meningitis. What's worse is that, in 2008, 65 percent of the closings or warnings were due to storm-water runoff that came from an unknown source.
Storm-water runoff and pollution is only going to get worse with hotter, wetter years forecasted by climate change. Although the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has agreed to up their monitoring standards by 2012, the NRDC says control of pollution is far more effective than monitoring of it. To accomplish this, they suggest replacing the dumping of rainwater with filtering by means of yard-placed rain gardens, tree boxes on city sidewalks, green roofs and even pavement that allows for water penetration.
Despite the NRDC recommendations, states are jumping up to find ways to comply with the three requirements to which the EPA reluctantly agreed, which are: to conduct new health studies and swimmer surveys, approve a water-testing method that will produce same-day results and to protect beachgoers from a broader range of waterborne illness like rashes, pinkeye, meningitis, hepatitis and respiratory infections. Wisconsin's Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) claims on their website that the EPA has praised them as a model for other states, but how do the four Great Lakes states really measure up?
Although Wisconsin may have a handy tool on their website that tells those seeking a safe beach which beaches in the area are closed and which are under advisory. The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District dumped 6.4 billion gallons of sewage and storm-water that ended up in the Great Lakes. This seems paltry compared to Chicago's 34.5 billion gallon estimated dumping total between 2000 and 2006. Like Wisconsin, Minnesota has a website that shows which beaches are safe but also has about 60 miles of unstable clay embankment all along the shore of Lake Superior, resulting in environmental damage.
So how does Michigan, the official "Great Lake State", compare? Although there are 118 designated Environmental Areas along the coast that protect habitats and 300 miles of coastline that require a permit to avoid worsening erosion, 70% of the coast is privately owned, making preservation difficult. Despite all these precautions, no state is ideal and the best way to protect your loved ones and yourself is to follow all guidelines and choose your beaches wisely.