Update: Sanitary and Environmental Surveys Explore Human Health and Water Quality at Great Lakes Beaches

Thomas Edge
Health Professionals Advisory Board
Gabrielle Parent-Doliner
Great Lakes Beach Association
Matt Dellinger
Medical College of Wisconsin
July 15, 2021
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The IJC’s Health Professionals Advisory Board and the Great Lakes Beach Association are collaborating on a public health initiative to assess the binational extent, experience and effects of Great Lakes beach sanitary surveys in the United States and environmental health and safety surveys in Canada.

These surveys are intended to be conducted each year by beach owners, operators or custodians to help identify, understand and prioritize environmental and human health risks affecting Great Lakes beaches and recreational waters. Both Canada and the United States provide guidance and checklists for inspecting beaches as part of these surveys.

By using questionnaires, the project team – comprised of Thomas Edge, Matthew Dellinger and Jennifer Boehme from the IJC board and Shannon Briggs, Julie Kinzelman and Gabrielle Parent-Doliner from the beach association – hopes to find out how many Great Lakes beach owners, operators, or custodians carry out these surveys, and how the surveys have helped better understand and remediate environmental and health risks at beaches.

The Questionnaires

The first questionnaire was launched on the Great Lakes Beach Association website in the fall of 2020 to screen beach owners and operators on whether they conducted annual surveys.  

A second, more detailed, questionnaire was posted on the association website in the winter of 2021 to further explore knowledge gained by beach owners and operators from sanitary surveys in recent years.

The project team will compile stories and other information shared via the questionnaires about how conducting beach surveys led to outcomes like fewer beach closures or increased tourism at a local beach. This will help identify any needs and best practices for monitoring Great Lakes beaches.

Highlights from the preliminary results of the second questionnaire, which is now closed, include:

1: Thirty-five representatives from beach monitoring programs responded, providing information representing about half of 2,154 monitored beaches in the two countries.

The respondents were from states and provinces including Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Ontario. Respondents included representatives from local public health departments, natural resource departments, universities, Indigenous tribes and citizen science groups.

2: About 70 percent of beach program administrators who responded to the questionnaire reported doing annual sanitary or environmental surveys.

Most reported that the surveys led to remedial actions such as wastewater infrastructure upgrades, waterfowl control actions, pet control actions, beach landscaping, sand grooming, and enhanced garbage and waste management.

3: About 30 percent of beach program respondents indicated that fecal pollution sources at their beaches were known.

Roughly another third reported fecal pollution sources were unknown, and the remaining third were unsure.

4: The most common threats identified by beach program respondents included Canada geese, stormwater runoff, gulls, parking lot runoff and algae.

Other reported threats included sewage and water currents.

Summary

More detailed analyses of the questionnaire results are underway. These data will help summarize beach monitoring practices and outcomes throughout the Great Lakes in the two countries rather than for specific beaches or agencies.

The information also will be useful as guidance for a related Large Basin Microbial Water Quality Study by the IJC Health Professionals Advisory Board. That project seeks to advance microbial source tracking technologies to improve how the sources of fecal pollution at beaches around the Great Lakes can be identified. After reviews, the results will be released by the board and posted on the Great Lakes Beach Association’s website.

Thomas Edge
Health Professionals Advisory Board

Thomas Edge is a member of the IJC’s Health Professionals Advisory Board. Edge conducted research on waterborne pathogens, microbial source tracking and beach water quality at Environment and Climate Change Canada’s National Water Research Institute for almost 20 years and continues this research through an adjunct professor position at McMaster University and a small social enterprise. He also serves as a scientific adviser on Health Canada’s interagency working group, currently renewing the Guidelines for Canadian Recreational Water Quality. 

Gabrielle Parent-Doliner
Great Lakes Beach Association

Gabrielle Parent-Doliner has been on the board of the Great Lakes Beach Association since 2017. Most recently she was director of the Swimmable Waters Programs with Swim Drink Fish, directing Blue Flag, citizen science monitoring programming and Swim Guide. She is a leading expert in recreational water quality data and the author of the first open data standard for the automated exchange of recreational water quality data.

Matt Dellinger
Medical College of Wisconsin

Matt Dellinger is an associate professor at the Medical College of Wisconsin and member of the IJC Health Professionals Advisory Board.