TRAVERSE CITY (AP) – About three dozen health departments and other local agencies that usually receive state funding to monitor their beach waters for bacterial contamination won’t get any money next year because the lion’s share will go to one county.
A budget bill approved by the Legislature ordered the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to give $100,000 to Macomb County for a project designed to speed up analyses of samples that determine whether the water in a particular area has dangerous levels of E. coli bacteria.
No one disputes the worthiness of the project, which the DEQ says eventually could improve water testing statewide. But because only $152,000 is available for monitoring in 2014, just 10 county health departments will share what’s left after the Macomb grant. Thirty-seven previous recipients will get nothing.
“It’s just not fair for the rest of us,” said Sarah U’Ren, program director for The Watershed Center Grand Traverse Bay, a nonprofit organization that monitors waters off a dozen beaches in Grand Traverse, Benzie and Leelanau counties.
The center typically has received annual grants of $8,000 to $12,000, although it got $17,000 this year because more than usual was available statewide.
“We should all get our share of the pie,” U’Ren said. “We get a large number of tourists up here. We want to be able to tell those people, and people who live here, that it’s safe to go in the water.”
The funding comes from a federal program, but states decide how to divide up their shares. In a typical year, Michigan’s allocation is about $200,000, DEQ spokesman Brad Wurfel said. This year’s was twice that amount because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency gave Michigan some extra money that other states hadn’t used.
But next year, Michigan is scheduled to receive just $152,000.
As first reported by the Traverse City Record-Eagle, state Reps. Anthony Forlini of Macomb County and Eileen Kowall of Oakland County inserted a provision in the budget bill steering $100,000 to Macomb County for use at the Lake St. Clair Metropark Beach, where the new water analysis method is being tested.
Kowoll told The Associated Press that she and Forlini hadn’t realized so little money would be available for water monitoring next year. The federal money is added to the DEQ’s surface water fund, which totals $17.5 million, she said.
“We just figured that from that line item, they could find $100,000 for this project,” Kowoll said. “It really would be a huge benefit to the entire state to be able to tell within two hours instead of 18 hours whether a beach is contaminated.”
Water samples taken by local monitors are sent to laboratories for analysis. Once results are in, word is sent to close a beach if E. coli levels are unsafe. Exposure to E. coli can cause diarrhea, vomiting and fever.
“Right now, announced beach closures are reflecting conditions two days old or more,” Wurfel said. “That means by the time you see the announcement, the problem may actually no longer be there. It’s the best we’ve got, but real-time water analysis will help us do a better job of informing the public about water quality conditions.”
The experimental method uses DNA analysis to determine the presence of E. coli, said William Creal, chief of the DEQ’s Water Resources Division. The Macomb County beach is a good place to test it because it’s one of the most heavily used beaches in Michigan, he said.
“Our vision is to perfect the process and eventually mobilize it to every county in the state,” Wurfel said.
With only $52,000 to divide among other monitoring programs for 2014, the DEQ gave top priority to areas with greatest need, he said. Counties without beach closures the previous five years were first to lose out.
Among the 10 agencies besides Macomb’s that were funded, grants included $2,600 each for Alpena, Berrien, Chippewa, Monroe and Ottawa counties; $5,200 each for Iosco, Schoolcraft and Wayne counties; $10,400 for Arenac County and $13,000 for St. Clair County.
The Huron County Health Department was among those shut out after getting $21,000 this year. Environmental health director Tip MacGuire said he’s contacted his local legislators but fears his county on Lake Huron at the tip of the Thumb region will have no monitoring in 2014.
“It’s definitely going to hurt us,” he said.
His agency usually monitors 13 beaches once a week from shortly before Memorial Day until the week after Labor Day. Sampling results are provided to local media and posted online.
Huron County had three beach closings last summer because of excessive E. coli after heavy summer rains, which wash contamination from shore into the lake, MacGuire said.
Wurfel said the DEQ will try to return funding levels to normal in 2015. But there’s another complication: President Barack Obama has proposed abolishing the federal funding. The program has survived only because Congress has kept spending at current levels, unable to agree on a new spending blueprint.
“If and when they approve a budget, it’s likely this program will be eliminated entirely,” Wurfel said. “We need to look at a long-term solution to the funding issue and how this work is supported.”
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