Department of Public Health
Ottawa County has beautiful beaches! However, natural bodies of water contain microorganisms regardless of how clean or clear the waters look. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), germs that cause recreational water illnesses are spread by swallowing, breathing in the mists or aerosols from, or having contact with contaminated water in swimming pools, water parks, hot tubs, interactive fountains, water play areas, lakes, rivers, or oceans.
Contaminates include rain and agricultural runoff, animal excrements, and faulty septic systems. Water is tested for E. coli from 16 public beaches throughout the summer and the results are posted below and on Twitter and Facebook.
If you were familiar with our beach monitoring program in the past, you may recall "advisories" being issued. Public health officials have studied these advisories concluding that they were not truly effective in protecting public health. Learn More.
Beach Watch Frequently Asked Questions
Steps to Prevent Recreational Water Illnesses
- Do not swallow lake water and avoid getting water in your mouth.
- Wash your hands with soap and water before eating.
- Take your kids on bathroom breaks and be sure young children wear clean swim diapers.
- Do not swim when you are sick. You can spread germs in the water and make other people sick.
- Do not swim in water that appears murky, smells foul or looks polluted in any way.
- Avoid swimming immediately after heavy rainfall.
- Do not feed seagulls.
- Shower when you return home.
Are Ottawa County beaches unclean?
On the contrary! Ottawa County boasts some of the cleanest and most beautiful fresh water beaches in the country. A recent publication of the National Resources Defense Council reported less than three percent of beach water samples collected in Ottawa County had excessive E. coli levels compared to five percent statewide.
How often is the beach water tested?
The beach water of the 16 beaches listed above is tested weekly from June to September. Ottawa County has one of the most progressive beach water quality programs in the Great Lakes region. Partnerships with numerous organizations have allowed the County to test more frequently and extensively than any other county on Michigan's west coast. Partners include the United States Geological Survey, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment.
What is beach water tested for?
Beach water is tested for E. coli, which is a type of bacteria found in intestines of animals and humans.
Where does E. coli come from?
There are many sources including rain runoff, pet excrement, washed into the water, faulty septic systems, plus water fowl and other wild animals living near or in the water.
How are beach water samples taken?
Water samples are taken one foot below the surface in water that is between three and six feet in depth. The Health Department collects three samples at various points along the swimming area each time a beach is tested. Results of the analysis are available after approximately 24 hours.
What do the results mean?
If the results of three test samples average to less than 300 E. coli per 100 milliliters of water, the risk of recreational water illnesses is minimal. If the test results over a 30 day period average below 130 E. coli per 100 ml of water, the risk of recreational water illnesses is minimal. High levels of E. coli indicate fecal contamination and the possible presence of other harmful bacteria, parasites and viruses in the water. Regardless of beach water test results, safe swimming should always be practiced to prevent recreational water illnesses.
What "conditions" does the Health Department monitor?
The Health Department has surveyed and monitored the relationships between weather, lake conditions and environmental conditions during the past nine years. As a result of these studies, it has been observed that many of these conditions correlate with poor water quality. For instance, heavy precipitation usually precedes a temporary spike in bacteria levels. The long term goal is to understand these relationships and empower the Health Department to create predictive models for swimming safety and preventing recreational water illnesses, much like the daily weather report.
How can bacteria and other microbes in beach water affect me?
People should continue to enjoy the beach, but they should remember that all beaches, everywhere, at all times have microorganisms which can cause illness. Exposure to beach water with high levels of microbial contamination could cause ear, eye, nose and throat infections, gastrointestinal illness or skin rashes. It may also lead to parasitic infections. The preventative steps listed above should always be taken to prevent recreational water illnesses.
A challenge which the Health Department has struggled with for many years was the time lapse (of at least 24 hours) between water sampling and the test results of those samples. The Department knew the results were from water collected on the prior day. At the same time, it felt a civic responsibility to issue an advisory for the purposes of protecting public health. New data tells us that the surges in E. coli are short lived. Research conducted last year found that in 99% of instances, the day that the advisory was issued the beach water was actually below the "300 E. coli per 100 milliliters of water" threshold. Armed with this knowledge, the department is no longer issuing advisories. The test results will continue to be posted online so beachgoers can make informed decisions about water quality.
If the Health Department is no longer issuing "No Swimming Advisories" why continue to test the water?
There are several reasons why the Department continues to test the water. The vision is to proactively issue advisories much quicker than sampling alone will allow. Each year brings the Department one step closer to this through studying the relationships between weather conditions, bather loads, wildlife, currents, water quality and other factors. Continued testing is a critical component of the research that will lead to predictive models for swimming safety and preventing recreational water illnesses. While there is more to study, Ottawa County is proud to be a participant in this research. In addition, the department is testing rapid-result laboratory equipment not yet approved by the Environmental Protection Agency. If pilot testing is successful, future E. coli tests could be completed from sampling to results in just several hours. Both initiatives could improve beach water monitoring programs nationwide.
Why did I hear a report of a "No Body Contact Advisory" being issued by the Health Department?
A "No Body Contact Advisory" is in response to a sewer overflow. This is different than the advisories once issued via the beach water monitoring program. During periods of heavy rainfall or snowmelt, the wastewater volume in a municipal sewer system can exceed the capacity of the system or treatment plant. The system overflows and discharges excess wastewater directly to nearby streams, rivers, or other water bodies. Because there was a known contaminant discharged into the body of water, these types of advisories will continue to be issued and communicated via the news media, on our website and through social media. Learn more about sewer overflows.
For more questions about beach water sampling please call 616-393-5645.
Healthy Swimming (CDC)
NOTE: The health department does not deem beaches unsafe based on weather conditions or wave action. The miles of beautiful shoreline are inviting, however we all should be reminded to respect the water. Rip currents and undertows can be very strong and very dangerous. Please visit http://www.ripcurrents.noaa.gov/ for more information.
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