Poop is no laughing matter with many metro beach closures this summer

A family wades in the water at a beach
A family wades in the waters of Lake Harriet. Attendance is very low in a summer where several beaches were closed across the metro due to contaminated water.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

Along the shore of Lake Harriet, fall is in the air. It’s not sweltering hot, no one in the lake and there’s plenty of room on the beach, which is open for business — unlike five other Minneapolis beaches closed due to water contamination.

“This is a record. We have not had this many beach closures since the beginning of our beach sampling program in 2003,” said Deb Pilger, who decides whether to close Minneapolis beaches when weekly water tests show contamination.

At times this summer, half of the 12 beaches she oversees were not swimmable. Pilger said heavy rainfall brought dirty water into lakes, leading to contamination.

“When we have a rain event, it brings in a lot of storm water runoff and that runoff brings in a lot of debris and bacteria from streets, yards, yard waste,” said Pilger.

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Goose droppings also contaminated water at some Minneapolis beaches.

No one tracks beach closings statewide in Minnesota. Local governments decide whether to test water and bar swimming. The state Department of Health gets involved when an outbreak of illness related to dirty water occurs. Trisha Robinson oversees the waterborne diseases unit at the health department.

“We certainly have had a busy summer,” said Robinson.

An outbreak of a viral illness on Lake Minnetonka likely sickened 200 people, according to the health department. Robinson said about 70 people contracted E. coli after swimming in Lake Nokomis.

Health officials say no one needed hospitalization. Yet both episodes could have been prevented.

“It is all about poop,” said Robinson. “That’s how people come down with these illnesses. It’s about somebody, usually a person that has an illness, and they get in the water and just the small amount of poop that they have on their butt washes off into the water and it makes everybody else sick.”

A woman stands along a beach
18-year-old Isabela Frye of Minneapolis said she trusts the beach monitoring program and will get in the water, as long as officials have not closed the beach.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

All the news about contaminated water and illness has been unsettling for swimmers.

“It kind of takes away the fun,” said Isabela Frye, 18, of Minneapolis, who was at a Lake Harriet beach with a friend this week. Frye said she trusts the beach monitoring program and will get in the water as long as officials have not closed the beach.

“I’m a little bit more concerned, but I also do think if they haven’t closed down the beach yet, nobody’s gotten sick yet, I definitely still want to go in,” Frye said.

Nearby, George Hall, 83, was sitting on a park bench. He said he grew up swimming in Minneapolis lakes as a kid, decades before anyone worried about water quality.

“I couldn’t tell you how many thousands of hours I put in there,” said Hall, joking that he sucked up way too much of the water yet he doesn’t remember anyone getting sick.

But Hall said all of the closures are concerning.

“If I was a kid or a parent of a child swimming now, I’d be nervous about that.”

Health officials stress that people should stay out of the water if they’re sick. They also say after a heavy rain, give the beach a break for about a day.

Hennepin County health inspector Julia Selleys said she and her colleagues are looking for ways to prevent future outbreaks, including making more bathrooms available. But Selleys said preventing contamination will have to come down to personal responsibility.

“What should you do when you have to go to the bathroom and you’re on the middle of the lake? Or how do you maintain your boat? Where can you dump your waste water?,” asked Selleys. “So I think the first thing is education.”