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EPA Samples Show How Bacteria Can Ruin a Day at the Beach

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The latest “Safe for Swimming?” report from Environment America says more than half of beaches tested last year across the nation had at least one day on which fecal contamination reached potentially unsafe levels. (Adobe Stock)

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 Mike Moen, Producer

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Tuesday, July 18, 2023   

A significant percentage of beaches that surround the Great Lakes tested positive last year for potentially unsafe levels of bacteria. Wisconsin is highlighted in a new report that compiles federal data. In its latest “Safe for Swimming?” summary, the group Environment America notes 63% of beaches tested in the Great Lakes region last year had at least one day of fecal contamination that exceeded the EPA’s Beach Action Value. That tool helps states determine whether a beach is safe enough to go swimming. 

John Rumpler, clean water director with Environment America, said the results underscore how much pollution is plaguing areas meant for the public to enjoy. 

“All too often, hundreds of America’s beaches have enough pollution to put swimmers at risk – and that’s just unacceptable,” he explained. 

The report’s authors looked at data from more than 300,000 samples across the U.S. that were sent to the EPA. For Wisconsin, more than 100 beaches were tested last year, and 76 had at least one day of potentially harmful levels of the bacteria in question. The group said key sources of pathogen pollution that can make swimmers sick include stormwater runoff and sewage overflows.

And in the Midwest, there is concern about the presence of so-called factory farms in connecting the dots, Rumpler said. 

“It’s possible that manure from some of those animal operations is also contributing to the kind of bacteria that we’re seeing on these beaches,” he continued. 

To prevent these results from becoming more widespread, the report recommends putting moratoriums on industrial-scale livestock operations or adopting policies that stop manure from flowing into waterways. Another listed solution is repairing and modernizing sewage systems. Those types of infrastructure projects stand to benefit from the bipartisan infrastructure law adopted by Congress in 2021.